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Inauthentically Authentic

Is Authenticity going the way of Privacy? Are both vestiges of our pre-digital and pre-Internet past?

There was a time when we would carefully invite others into our personal lives and make a special effort to share interests, photographs, and secrets. But that norm has been turned on its head. To be interpersonally engaged today you share your personal life, thoughts, and experiences and you must vigilantly protect anything you decide is private with firewalls and passwords so secure you block yourself from access. The Millennials live their lives as stars of their own reality TV shows publishing everything on social media platforms not so secretly hoping to become a viral phenom. If you are reading this, or if you have a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account, you too have been infected with Millenialitis.

For a long while in leadership development research and thought, authenticity has been considered the hallmark of superior leadership. In 2005 it was said, “It’s the real thing – the attribute that uniquely defines great leaders.” https://hbr.org/2005/12/managing-authenticity-the-paradox-of-great-leadership. The authors go on to point out that it is the art of managing one’s sincerity, honesty, and integrity – knowing how much to disclose and when – that distinguishes great leadership. They caution, “authentic leaders don’t really fake it to make it.”

Just the other day, I watched Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk during which she advise us to “fake it till you become it” because our body language will shape who we are. https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Herminia Ibarra in her new 2015 article says, “the notion of adhering to one “true self” flies in the face of much research on how people evolve with experience.” https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox.

In my effort to reconcile the virtuous admonition to be authentic with the advice to fake it, I have concluded that the concept of “authenticity” has become so nuanced that it has imploded under the weight of exceptions and because some of today’s most abhorrent, crudely violent leaders can also claim the mantle of ‘authenticity’ it can not longer be considered a badge of greatness.

I believe that opportunities for, and the responsibilities of, leadership happen at every level of social, political, and organizational hierarchies. The expectation around our zone of personal privacy has shrunk. The pace of change has accelerated requiring continuous adaptation. Authenticity is both situational and a perception. Because authenticity can be achieved by persevering through faking-it to becoming-it with practice, posturing and sophisticated digital enhancements when necessary or available, we have to look for something more immutable than that from our leaders and from ourselves.

When circumstances inspire collective outrage we are able to get a glimpse of transcendent qualities that we hope our leaders and our neighbors embody. Most recently, the Je Suis Charlie Hebdo reaction to the murder of 12 employees of that French satirical newspaper and the reaction to the January 7, 2015 kosher supermarket murders inspires unity rallies to stand up together against being intimidated by fear. Another example is that thanks to a citizen bystander who videotaped the death by police brutality of Eric Garner we express collective outrage through the “I can’t breathe” protests. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2014/dec/04/i-cant-breathe-eric-garner-chokehold-death-video.

These collective actions are great, authentic, and something even deeper than that. I do not have a catchword or phrase to offer you for what that is that we need from our leaders and ourselves in this digital age. It is hard to articulate the dynamic mixture of core personal attributes that are the hallmark of superior leadership. But as I stand on the bridge between 2015 and the past, I embrace the future and nostalgically wave my handkerchief goodbye to the static and innocent benchmarks of privacy and authenticity as pillars of dignity and greatness.

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