What Does It Mean to Be Authentic?
Authenticity may seem like a relatively straightforward concept. We call something whose origin or authorship is not in question ‘authentic’ – a jewel, a piece of art, a manuscript. We can verify this type of authenticity through scientific procedures, and we can, most of the time, ascertain the value (economic or otherwise) of that origin and authorship, which will, in turn, make authenticity more or less precious.
When it comes to people, it gets a little more complicated. We may use ‘authentic’ to indicate that someone is acting in ways that show her true self and how she feels. In the context of sport, an ‘authentic’ performance suggests the absence of ‘tricks’ such as drugs. In media, authenticity may be found by constructing interviews that feel spontaneous in that questions were not provided in advance, and the ‘true’ depiction of reactions and feelings is captured. When Meghan Markle was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey recently, the latter said upfront that they had only generically discussed what they would talk about, but had not pre-decided any specific question. Whether that was true (unlikely) or not, the effect sought was that the viewer would hear and see things that she would perceive as ‘unedited’.
To be or not to be?
Interestingly, authenticity is not equally valued when we look for the ‘truth’ in situations that directly affect our actions. We do not expect or want our doctor or psychologist to be ‘spontaneous’ in their advice but rely precisely on the opposite – years of study and experience allowing them not to judge our issue instinctively or impulsively but carefully and thoughtfully.
Equally interesting is the question of whether an artistic performance comes across as authentic and sincere or not. With some exceptions – a jam session during a jazz concert, for instance (one of the best moments if you are a jazz lover) – that type of performance is always prepared. If it suffers from too much restraint of the artist’s emotions, we may perceive it as insincere. But we may still perceive it as such if it’s too aggressive or self-centered – authenticity is also, and perhaps especially, about our role in the performance.
Given the exponential increase of video communication in the last year, the question of authenticity has been enriched by how much the medium (the video technology) influences our perception of authenticity levels. When I first started to speak at online conferences or give video lectures, I read somewhere that I needed to pay attention to my image on the screen and not to be too ‘perfect’, which has a lot to do with being comfortable with the medium (requiring a lot of practice), having a simple and not-too-colorful background, and adjust lighting so to create, as much as possible, a ‘natural’ effect. Thus, whether we perceive authenticity online may just be the direct result of how much preparation and thought we put into deciding the set-up and calibrating our own performances. Again, authenticity here may have little to do with how we really are and much to do with how others expect us to be and would consider ‘right’ and appropriate in that context.
Social media blurring the lines of reality
We may find some helpful clues in the world of photography. Despite the fact that photography was designed the capture reality as is, it is equally clear that photography cannot be a guarantee of the truth of the reality that it is supposed to reflect. When we look at a photo, we do not ask ourselves, “Does what we see in this image really exist?” but rather, “Am I to take it as something that really exists?” In other words, I – the viewer - am the meter that measures whether something can be accepted as truth, and I will undertake that evaluation based on my beliefs, values, and, very often, preconceptions. In the age of Instagram and post-truth, how many times do we perceive a photo of someone as ‘fake’, even when it’s not, just because it does not conform with our own belief of how the person captured in the photo should look like?
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to define ‘authenticity’ consists of defining its opposite. French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre identified ‘inauthentic’ as someone whose actions are modified by external pressures such as the pressure to appear to be a certain kind of person, to adopt a given way of life, and to compromise one’s own personal integrity in exchange for the benefits of social conformity. If we look at authenticity from this perspective, we find that it is inextricably linked to freedom, our desire to achieve it, and our ability to manage it. But since this is incredibly hard to do, we may find authenticity more easily in those who give up social circles altogether, who live like eremites, or choose to avoid most social interactions. Most ordinary people, however, are not in a position to do so.
Nor are leaders.
The risk of ‘authentic’ leadership
Social psychology literature has put a lot of emphasis on authentic leadership over the last few years. Authentic leaders unveil things about themselves (showing trust), say things as they are (displaying honesty), and do not pretend to be an expert on each and every aspect of their job nor that they are free of problems (exercising delegation and exhibiting vulnerability). Underlying this celebration of authenticity, there is of course an untold assumption that leaders have good intentions and are capable managers. Nobody values an authentic yet incompetent person or, for the lack of a more accurate word, a dick!
But a closer look may reveal authenticity as a double-edge sword, even when the best intentions are there. Showing weakness can cause leaders to lose their credibility; admitting incompetence can raise questions over the legitimacy of that person in that role; saying things as they are (particularly absent the choice of careful words) could position the leader as having no control over those things. Leaders often find themselves having to adapt to new circumstances – the operating environment can change very quickly. Staying ‘authentic’ in the sense of sticking to their own beliefs and modus operandi without realizing the world has changed around them can hardly be helpful to an organization and its people. Leaders dealing with global issues should, by definition, be capable of understanding that whatever they have done in one country or culture may not necessarily work in another and that they need to concede that there are other ‘truths’ besides theirs. Taking new and unfamiliar roles may work better if, at the beginning, leaders seek to find inspiration from and even emulate to an extent what other leaders in that role have done. If leaders feel that truth to themselves is the most important trait of their style, they will be proof to the realization that they need to learn and develop themselves continuously. The sentence “this is not my thing” may work with friends and family but doesn’t go very far with employees and collaborators.
At the same time, the pandemic has raised the stakes when it comes to trusting other people. ‘Fake’ relationships and attitudes reveal themselves more bluntly when the ambiguity cushion provided by the ordinary liturgy of social interactions becomes rare. We have become more acutely aware of authenticity because we know that this incredibly strange year has meant something difficult for all of us, and our antennas are more receptive to artificial ‘everything is well’ behaviors.
Perhaps we should use the word ‘authenticity’ a lot less, and we should stop considering it a value towards which we should tend. Recognizing that, much like beauty, authenticity lies in the eyes of the beholder.