Recall the introduction of the four types of leadership intelligences—Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment—that support the development of the being of being a leader. We first explored Awareness and then Trust/Integrity. This blog examines Authenticity.

Authenticity has been hijacked by popular culture to mean anything from being real to channeling one’s id. This has led people to sputter impulsive thoughts that have never previously crossed their minds as a way to showcase being “more real” or “genuine.”

As a buzzword, authenticity has emerged without rigorous assessment as to what it is; this post takes a step toward resolving this issue.

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, 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.

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

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.
– Tony Zampella

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

The only thing that can be said to be mine is my choice, the freedom to choose and to 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 the freedom to be.

“Care” and Authentic Existence

Authenticity cannot be reduced to an empirical style or condition or a psychological ideal. Its origins in philosophy can offer a view of human existence that accounts for our freedom to be.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s development of authenticity centers on “care” as the fundamental structure of human existence. When addressing leadership qualities, Heidegger’s notion of care offers a complex examination of authenticity that represents the human experience of being in the world through participation and involvement.

Care: The Structure of Human Existence

Care, or “Sorge” in German, is not simply a sentiment, feeling, or emotion; rather, it is a way of being in the world involving both action and intention. Care shapes how we engage with the world. It captures the interdependent nature of three fundamental components: “thrownness” (Geworfenheit), “projection” (Entwurf), and “fallenness” (Verfallen).

1- Thrownness

We are “thrown” into existence—in a world we did not choose—with a certain historical, cultural, and personal context that shapes our experiences and possibilities.

Thrownness recognizes that we exist within a larger framework that influences our understanding of the world. Our authentic being emerges from recognizing and accepting the “thrownness” of our origins and context.

Example: Imagine a person unexpectedly facing a challenging situation, such as sudden unemployment or death in the family, situations beyond their control. Authenticity, in this context, involves acknowledging and embracing instead of resisting or avoiding the experience. Authentic leaders confront the thrownness, recognizing the impact as an aspect of their existence.

2- Projection

We have the capacity to project ourselves into the future. We often refer to projections of our unconscious, as Carl Jung states:

A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.

Heidegger posited that we also project future possibilities via goals, aspirations, and intentions. We care about our possibilities and strive to realize them.

In this sense, care is not just contemplation, but rather, it involves action and engagement with the world. Leaders who embrace how projects and goals shape actions understand how our actions shape our understanding of ourselves and the world.

Example: Consider a student who aspires to become a professional musician and sets long-term goals to achieve this dream. Authenticity recognizes one’s possibilities and calls us to question choices to align one’s authentic vision of the future.

3- Fallenness

Part of our humanity involves our tendency to be absorbed by everyday concerns and distractions. It’s the potential to lose sight of our authentic possibilities and become absorbed in the mundane or inauthentic aspects of existence.

Fallenness represents a state where we lose touch with our true potential and possibilities because of conforming to societal norms, habitual routines, and other factors.

Example: Picture a person who, due to societal expectations, follows a career path they are not passionate about simply because it’s considered prestigious. In this context, authenticity involves recognizing the pull of external influences, calling us to question whether the chosen path truly resonates with one’s authentic self.

4- Temporality

Heidegger’s concept of care also focuses on the temporal nature of human existence. He argues that our existence is always rooted in time and temporality.

Care shapes our engagement with the past, present, and future character as a way of being orientated toward future possibilities. It discloses our understanding of ourselves and the world and is shaped by anticipation of the future.

Thrownness, projection, fallenness, and temporality underscore a path and practice for authenticity as three dimensions: self-determination, unified being, and spontaneity.

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Being Authentic: A Path and Practice, not a Goal

A mindful or reflective practice supports developing authenticity as a path, not a goal.

Authentic being takes custody of its narrative, authors its existence, chooses its experiences, and is willing to be held to account for experiencing freedom, as detailed by Peter Block in his book Confronting our Freedom:

Our free will … [is] composed of three elements or dimensions. Our free actions are spontaneous — they arise out of nothing. Our free actions are self-determined — they are our own personal, individual creation. And, finally, our free actions are choices among alternatives — that at bottom, we always could have acted otherwise.

Integrating Heidegger’s “care structure” supports these three dimensions of being authentic as a practice.

1- Self-Determination/Resolve

Self-determination is being held accountable for keeping our possibilities alive via the goals, aspirations, and intentions we choose to engage with and act on.

We engage life with intention and action. The resolve to express our individuality expands our autonomy to engage in action as choices among alternatives. We choose freely in the face of guilt that we could have acted otherwise.

CONSTRAINT: involves whatever distracts us from choosing our possibility, whatever has us “fallen” into the inauthentic aspect of existence.

With so many distractions—needs, cravings, and desires—it becomes difficult to choose between our authentic being and expected self. Heidegger explains the tendency of the “human self” to turn away from its own authentic being to seek security in the “they-self” of the crowd or society’s norms and expectations.

Society conditions us to fit in and “drift” into habitual living, often leaving us paralyzed to choose or act on our possibility out of guilt or fear.

To cope, we fake it, cover-up, fit in, or accommodate expectations to land a deal or smooth out a relationship.

PRACTICE: Realize our autonomy and clarify our purpose.

To lead involves mindful reflection to distinguish intentions and motivations. We identify our pretenses and discover any underlying guilt that constrains us from acting.

2- Unified Being/Presence

To be held accountable for our whole self requires acceptance and integration. Our authentic being emerges from recognizing and accepting the “thrownness” of our origins and context.

This involves freely choosing our identities, heritage, past histories, and even our mistakes and failures. We do not turn away from ourselves; rather, we use situations or encounters to disclose and discern concealed aspects of our being.

CONSTRAINT: includes all that separates us from choosing: mistakes, failures, and heritage, among others.

In our complex world with disruptive change, it is becoming more untenable to lead and connect. How often do we feel a need to compartmentalize or lead separate lives to survive? The fragmentation and separation result in a feeling of isolation and disconnect.

Society urges us to fragment our attention, hide our mistakes, and celebrate perfectionism.

To cope, we strive for an ideal self—perfectionism—comparing ourselves to others and falling short.

PRACTICE: Accept the complexity of our being.

We recognize obstacles as invitations to distinguish concealed parts of our being.

Letting go of perfectionism and comparing ourselves to others or an ideal self supports accepting who I’ve been, who I am, and who I am becoming.

With reflection and questioning, leadership involves accepting and integrating experiences to inform rather than constrain choices.

3) Spontaneity/Freedom

Becoming accountable for our freedom requires choosing freely out of nothing.

Freedom lies in “the unknown.” The uncertainty we avoid reveals the possibility of what can be. Accepting the spaciousness of uncertainty reveals a possibility.

Buddhist thought speaks of spaciousness—a gap with no frame of reference, where we experience the fullness of existence. Heidegger calls it “anxiety”—an anxiousness about existence, one disclosing the totality of Being.

In this gap, who we know ourselves to be—the conditioning and expectations—slips away. We can be fully human, experiencing spontaneity.

CONSTRAINT: includes all that confines us.

In a volatile world, leadership often attempts to control the unknown and predict certainty. The fear of the unknown and uncertainty create anxiety. The need to be in control fixates on playing it “safe” and avoiding risk.

In uncertainty, authentic leaders, however, reveal themselves as vulnerable and unmasked.

PRACTICE: Cultivate openness to be with possibility.

Increasing awareness to develop mindfulness cultivates openness and expands clarity rather than demanding (or expecting) certainty.

Discovering possibilities requires space. Recognizing our pretenses reveals underlying coping strategies or defense mechanisms that cover our true nature.

Inquiring into when we’re being inauthentic—without shame—paradoxically frees us to expand our capacity to be vulnerable and tune into our nature.

Openness and vulnerability cultivate presence, aliveness, and possibility.

Finally,

Being authentic is a practice and capacity to disclose our existence and possibility.

Authentic leaders engage in truthful self-reflection. Indeed, the path to becoming authentic begins with reflecting on our existence to discern when we are inauthentic. If we are unwilling to recognize and confront our pretenses, it is virtually impossible to develop this capacity.

Authenticity is usually revealed upon reflection, whereas an inauthentic self is usually derived from one’s preoccupation. And that’s the paradox: if we focus on authenticity as a concern, we are likely acting from an inauthentic self.

With practice, we discover self-deceptions that keep us from 1) accepting our existence and choices, 2) enacting our potential, and 3) appreciating and integrating our whole being.

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

Reading Time: 8 min. Digest Time: 11 min.

  • Revised: December 2023

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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.