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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

It's Bring Your Authenticity To Work Day

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Authenticity is the thing these days. Everyone’s at it. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) tells you ‘How to become an authentic speaker’. Fast Company pushes ‘Self-improvement strategies for becoming a more authentic leader’. urges us to ‘Be authentic and genuine every day of the week’. It’s the holy grail of the era, the new gold standard, the One Ring.

But wait! What do all these authors mean by ‘authenticity’? HBR, again, defines authenticity as ‘Being true to yourself’, ‘Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do’ and ‘Making values-based choices’. It says that leaders struggle with it. Apparently, the way to overcome this deficiency is to develop something called ‘outsight’.

I have to admit that I too struggle with all this. What is this mystical authenticity thing? To which mountain top does the quest lead? What’s it all about?

Whenever someone starts talking about authenticity, I ask them what they mean. They’re generally stumped for an answer, I’ve found. After a bit of discussion, we usually come up with words like “natural”, “sincere” and “genuine” – which are all excellent, of course. Who could argue with that?

But answers like these still leave me wondering. When we’re at work, we cannot just be “natural”. It’s not a natural environment. We’re always flexing our behaviour, appropriate to the environment we’re in. For example, we behave with our own children at home in a completely different way from the way we behave with our friends down the pub (at least, I hope so). In both cases, we’re being ‘true to ourselves’, but we’re adjusting our behaviour to the situation.

So it is when we’re at work, particularly in a leadership role. We try to behave in a way that gets the best result for the business and the people we’re leading (don’t we?). Whether you’re being true to yourself isn’t the point. It’s about them, not you.

Moreover, if authenticity is all about being natural, how can you learn it? How could you possibly ‘experiment with new leadership behaviours’ as we’re urged to do? That, apparently, is what ‘outsight’ is all about.

Taking this thought further, how can one possibly ‘develop authenticity’? By definition, you can’t ‘become more authentic’. Surely it’s an oxymoron, a blatant contradiction in terms? It’s one or the other, isn’t it?

And if being yourself really is the thing, does this idea call into question the whole notion of personal development? For me, the answer is “no”. Personal development is an essential, ongoing part of becoming a better leader. That seems to me to be more important than seeking holy relics. The day you stop learning is the day you stop leading. That should be your quest.

© Patrick Macdonald 2016

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