As I continue this series on leadership intelligence, I offer this, the third in our series. Recall the introduction of four leadership intelligences—Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment—that support the development of the being of being a leader. The first post explored Awareness, and the most recent explored Trust/Integrity; in this blog, we will present Authenticity.

Authenticity has been hijacked by popular culture to mean anything from being real to channeling one’s id. This has led people to view being authentic as sputtering impulsive thoughts that had never previously crossed their minds as ostensibly being “more real” or “genuine.”

Authenticity as a buzzword has emerged without rigorous assessment as to what it is we are observing when we view or comment on one’s authenticity.

Leadership Intelligence #3: AUTHENTICITY

Authenticity is the possibility of being fully human.

The term authenticity exists philosophically between one’s actuality and one’s possibility. Through expanding responsibility, we cultivate individual freedom as a possibility. Unfortunately, one of the most challenging of our intelligences, authenticity, has been reduced to glib notions of “real” or “fake,” as if humans were fixed, one-dimensional objects like art or gems to evaluate.

When we view humans as externalized entities—the way we act or how we “express our selves”—we assess what we do, without considering our subjective self, who we are being. This includes our perceptions, interpretations, and insights, which are dynamic: constantly developing, expanding, and integrating beliefs, knowledge, and experiences.

To be “real” or to be “true” to oneself begs the question, to which self? If it is my own self—a self that is mine and that belongs to me—then how do I know it is mine and not simply a collection of masks: what I’ve been socialized to be or what others expect of me? How can I be sufficiently clear to see and to know that this self is mine to be true to?

Beyond a philosophical paradox, practically speaking, this is a fool’s errand. It will consign one to preoccupation with being real, akin to being perfect (another normative ideal), rather than freeing one to the experience of being human that reveals oneself to connect authentically.

The only thing that can be said to be mine is my choice, the freedom to choose and be accountable for my own choosing as a free being. Reducing authenticity to another “type,” “style,” “attribute,” or, worse yet, a “premium ideal forecloses the possibility of aliveness or that freedom to be.

A recent example from Fast Company, headlined “These Four Speaking Habits Are Ruining Your Authenticity,” offers this reductive view: “Don’t flash too many smiles—it’s unnerving and makes you seem insincere.”

Being Authentic

Authenticity cannot be reduced to an empirical style or condition or a psychological ideal. It originates in philosophy from a first-person, multidimensional, whole perspective of human existence that accounts for our freedom to be.

An authentic self is usually felt upon reflection, whereas an inauthentic self is usually derived from one’s focus. And that’s the paradox: if I am focusing on authenticity as a concern, I am likely acting from an inauthentic self.

Indeed, the path to becoming authentic begins with reflecting on the times when we are inauthentic and revealing any deceptive masks or facades to ourselves and, if appropriate, to others.

We begin with the choice to let life reveal or show us those masks or deceptions that conceal our true self. This begins with the willingness to reveal pretenses that point to hidden or concealed deceptions, not seen before.

Learning Theorist Chris Argyris, after 40 years of studying us human beings, shares this perspective on the subject of our inauthenticity:

“Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting, and the way they really act.”

Consider that we maintain this gap between our espoused theory and our theory-in-use by focusing on how we want to be seen, rather than who we are as a possibility to which we are held to account.

Authentic Leaders

If we are unwilling to recognize and confront our moments of inauthenticity, it is virtually impossible to develop this capacity or intelligence.

The authentic being takes custody of its narrative, authors its existence, owns its experiences, and is willing to be held to account for experiencing freedom in three areas:

1) Spontaneity: to be held accountable for choosing, as an autonomous being – (as self-governed) distinct from independent being (as not depending on others) – freely acting out of nothing but naturalness. We reveal ourselves as vulnerable, as unmasked, connecting to and relating with others in a natural way. Presence, aliveness, and connection manifest in this dimension of authenticity.

2) Self-Determination: to be held accountable for our possibility or potential as we seek out our particular uniqueness. We engage life intentionally, owning — not hiding or denying — our purpose. The courage and engagement people seek out are manifest in this dimension of authenticity.

3) Unified Self: to be held accountable for our whole self by owning and integrating –not masking or avoiding — its origins (culture, identities, heritage, past histories, etc.) as disclosed in everyday life. We expand our responsibility and willingness to own our whole self as unconcealed and discovered in each situation or encounter. 

authenticity grid

Click to Enlarge

The Practice of Authenticity

Being authentic is a practice—a willingness or disposition—to disclose our true being to ourselves. We discover and realize self-deceptions that keep us from owning and 1) accepting our choices, 2) honoring our uniqueness to live our purpose, and 3) appreciating and integrating our whole self.

  1. THE TRAP: In a world with increasing complexity and disruptive change, it is becoming more untenable to lead and connect with others if we are unable to choose between our authentic being and our expected self (as expected by others).
  2. THE PRETENSE: How often do we compartmentalize, fake it, cover-up, or pretend, just to fit in, to accommodate expectations, to land a deal, or to smooth out a relationship? Reflecting on our pretenses, and where we are inauthentic—without shame—paradoxically expands our capacity to be vulnerable or in tune to our nature. Experiencing our own inauthenticities supports connection and belonging over attempts to fit in.
  3. THE PRACTICE: We engage in mindful practices to identify our masks, and release inauthentic constraints to our authentic self, as lived, each moment.

Former Medtronics CEO and Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership Bill George reveals that “after years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity.”

In my next blog, the last in this four-part series, I will explore leadership Intelligence #4: Commitment.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.