The Truth About Being “Authentic”

Years ago, my marketing person (aka, my wife) came up with a short bio that’s read before I speak to a group. Here’s the short version:

Bringing authentic leadership to life, from the board room to the family room.

It’s not always read as it’s written. In Alabama, the woman introducing me read that I would be “bringing authentic leadership to life from the board room to the bedroom.” I got a standing ovation along with hearty applause from that largely female audience. But I digress.

Most people agree it’s good to be authentic. But what does it really mean?

What is Authenticity?

I found three definitions of authentic and authentic self. One defined authenticity as representing one’s true nature, beliefs, values, or idiosyncratic traits; true to oneself. Another said it’s not false or copied; genuine; real. A final definition said that “to be authentic means not caring what others think about you.”

So authenticity is about staying true to yourself, acting in alignment with your core values and traits, and not worrying about what others think about you. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

I see a few problems if everyone were to act on those three elements. For example–

  • Your coworker is a nasty, mean, negative person. Do you want to be around that personality, even if it is authentic?
  • Your partner is an introvert while you’re an extrovert. Can you imagine going home after work each day to sit in authentic silence until bedtime?
  • Your child had been diagnosed with a condition that experts call being a slob. Would you be okay with that authentic condition of living like animals were his mess to spread from his bedroom to every room in the house?

Yes, we’d get along better as world citizens if we tolerated and accepted people who do whatever they want. But only to a point. Because on the extreme side of authenticity are those that fight against even the slightest hint of societal conformity, established order, and rules in general. Extreme authenticity without regard for others looks more like a collection of anarchists than a civilization. I doubt any would applaud the 3,000-4,000 active serial killers living in the world at any time by saying, “Oh, that’s just so HIM!”

Authenticity Isn’t Just Doing Your Own Thing

Being your authentic self is about living true to your core values in ways that enrich more lives than just your own.

Being Eccentric Is More Than Okay

My wardrobe is 90% black; you prefer Hello Kitty clothing.  I eat dinner at 5PM; you don’t even think about supper until after 8. I will not stop for gas if it requires me to make a left turn into a gas station; you eat pizza with a fork and knife. My life clock runs fifteen minutes early; you arrive fashionably late. Consider these as our individual quirks, ones that are “value neutral.”

My friend David Rendall says,

“What makes us weird makes us wonderful!”

He should know. Standing at over 6’6″, dressing in bright pink, and running in several ultra-marathons and triathlons, he’s hard to miss. The easiest way to blend into the surroundings is to try to copy everyone else. So be idiosyncratic. Be weird. Be your own person. But adhere to one caveat: harm no one in the process. In fact, when you’re authentic in these ways, you make it okay for others to be authentic, too.

Stay True to Your Values

We live in a paradoxical world that tells you to live loudly in your values…as long as you embrace whatever values are deemed socially acceptable at any given time. Otherwise, some would have you sit down and shut up. Personally, I think the world would be a boring place if we shared the same values on everything. Besides, that world would never stretch us or require us to grow.

Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Being authentic doesn’t mean going out of your way to be contrary or antagonistic. Regardless of your particular values, remember the admonishment from the Apostle Paul: “Speak the truth in a spirit of love.” Too often people will put another on blast, and then justify their actions by saying something along the lines of “The truth hurts.” No, the truth doesn’t have to hurt. Unkind, non-civil speech, by its very nature, does.

A Little Conformity Reaps a Peck of Benefits

Ironically, how we evaluate our own authenticity is related to a certain level of social conformity. In studies, participants listed traits they believed were most aligned with their authentic selves. At the end of each day, participants rated how authentic they felt. Researchers expected to find that on days when participants practiced the traits they listed as their authentic selves, they would score HIGH that day on how authentic they felt.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, researchers found 5 traits linked to the highest self-reported authenticity ratings: extroversion, emotional stability, conscientiousness, intelligence, and agreeableness. Despite any personality differences and traits participants listed as their true authentic selves, participants felt more authentic when they conformed to those characteristics.

The next time you want to be more authentic, you can feel good about sporting a loud (or quiet) shirt and expressing a popular (or unpopular) opinion in the spirit of love. But when you want to feel like your most authentic self, push yourself to be a bit more outgoing, even-tempered, reliable, competent, and easy-going.



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