The Danger of Authenticity

by Dan Brown, PCC

Throughout our lives and across the ages, the same three questions, over and over again….

  1. Who am I?
  2. Why am I here?
  3. Where am I going?

These riddles point to the awesome mystery of what it is to be human. While they pose a danger to those prone to philosophical brooding, for most people these three questions can serve as healthy catalysts for our ongoing growth and transformation. The extent to which they do, however, depends mainly on your attitude toward that first, superior question about identity.

An unfortunately common attitude is captured in this famous quote:

“I yam what I yam and dats what I yam.”

Popeye the Sailor — what you see is what you get. In a sense Popeye, the forerunner to today’s cartoon superheroes, represents authenticity as the simple virtue we all were taught and continue to extoll. In real life, though, guess what? Authenticity is far more complex, because the thing it’s meant to describe, our identity, is not nearly as solid, stable, unwavering, and immutable as we trick ourselves into thinking it is. That’s the problem with authenticity. Personal growth and transformation take place only when we understand that identity is a creative process, not a permanent, one-dimensional persona that can be described as either authentic or fake.

Popeye’s motto, then, should be heeded as a caution against taking shelter in authenticity. Doesn’t that sound like a strange thing to say these days? Authenticity, possibly a psychological safe haven?

Well, just look how safe Popeye made himself.. You wouldn’t exactly call him vulnerable, would you? Chin lifted proudly and defiantly, Popeye flexes his biceps and dares anyone (including himself) to suggest being any other way than “what I yam.” As a consequence, you tell me: what are his chances of awakening to new possibilities, to handling curve balls and unfamiliar challenges as a leader? My money is on spinach tomorrow and the next day after that….

Popeye is trapped, along with many real people, inside what Harvard Business Review in 2015 coined “The Authenticity Paradox.”

“Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact,” writes Dr. Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.

Coaches, myself included, confront this simplistic understanding as a matter of course in our work with leaders and managers. To illustrate, take the case of my client, Tonya*. She’s a quiet, competent and highly reliable manager whose career trajectory has flattened out. She’s unhappy about that. Ask her why she has plateaued and Tonya echoes many others who ascribe their similar situations to a proud unwillingness to “play politics.”  Tonya actually would do well to sharpen her organizational and political instincts. But, instead of growing into someone capable of maneuvering smoothly, engaging in some networking and advancing her causes (personal as well as organizational), she rejects the plain reality that human nature is deeply and forever political. Her denial requires fervently holding to the belief that her superb work (and it is superb) should speak for itself. At the slightest hint that getting ahead (where am I going?) requires not only stellar work, but also political chops and self-promotion, Tonya grows indignant and agitated.

Not for a second am I suggesting Tonya and others should manipulate, lie and inflate. The point is that healthy political savvy is an important leadership skill; refusal to learn it will bring known consequences, according to talent management firm, Korn-Ferry, which lists political savvy in its leadership-competency inventory alongside delegating, problem-solving and 62 other skills. Blindness to the political landscape, for instance, can result in a failure to foresee the potential consequences of one’s actions.

Virtually all leadership competencies, especially those that make up emotional intelligence, require not only practicing a new behavior, but also constructing an identity, or role, to go along with it. Doing so, however, puts us in a bind.

“Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like imposters, we tend to latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable,” continues Dr. Ibarra in Harvard Business Review. Consider authenticity in this way performing as an ego-defense mechanism, protecting against feeling like a fraud by preserving the status quo.

I once coached a leader who insisted that unless he flew off the handle regularly his team wouldn’t believe he cared about or stood up for them. The composed-leader role had not yet been added to his identity portfolio. From the earliest days of growing up in a New York City family and neighborhood where passionate expression was how you belonged, my client had constructed a hot-tempered self that in some situations truly served. “Hey, look, that’s who I am!” he protested during one of our sessions. Over time, though, he painfully discovered how this identity was losing him credibility with peers and senior management, how his tempestuous outbursts were contagious. With work, he fortunately cultivated — you might even say invented — a complementary, calm persona.

We come to understand that our identity is anything but a fixed role we play across all of our social interactions. The doctor in the clinic is a mother at home. The leader at a company picnic is not the same leader in the board room. “You are actually made up of several role identities, multiple and not always clear or consistent values, beliefs, ways of being, and ways of doing.” Here I quote from my favorite field manual on how to be an agile leader: “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

Their words line up with those of the poetic giant, Walt Whitman. Recall his famous line: “Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Understanding yourself as a complex person made up of multiple “you’s” doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually coming into awareness of yourself as one playwright with many actors enables you to lead in complex situations. You can see far more possibilities than are available through only one identity lens. What does it take to add to your identity portfolio?

“By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs,” says Dr. Ibarra. “That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.”

In other words, there really is something to faking it until you make it. Placing ourselves in unfamiliar territory – new projects, different cultures — spurs us to redefine ourselves in adaptive ways. Think of it as trying on new outfits and reflecting afterward on which one was most successful. Reflecting in this way, as opposed to ruminating introspection, Ibarra says, is the healthy way to grow. Include in reflection revisiting your life story from time to time and ask whether or not some of the narratives that created your identity are tired, worn out and keeping you from evolving. Rewrite or tear them up.

“Countless books and advisers tell you to start your leadership journey with a clear sense of who you are,” says Ibarra. “But that can be a recipe for staying stuck in the past. Your leadership identity can and should change each time you move on to bigger and better things.”

What does it mean to be authentic, then, as your leadership identity changes?

Unpacking authenticity reveals numerous meanings — trustworthy, valid, dependable, accurate, and so on. Taking tough stands and raising undiscussable topics, expressing one’s own vulnerability — these, too, are dimensions of authenticity and, incidentally, they are measured by The Leadership Circle Profile 360 provided to Arden Coaching clients. Integrity folds into authenticity, too, as when we say of a leader, “he walks the talk.”

How, then, with multiple, protean selves is it possible to be authentic?

The answer, I think, comes by way of another term, which is coherence. Have you ever noticed somebody smiling when telling a sad story? That’s incoherence. Coherence means what you feel and what you say or do are in strict alignment. When that is true, your varied identities appear as a consistent system. Sure, your positions and opinions may change, and often do — minds change, thank goodness — but in the moment of expressing them, are you coherent? Is there a set of values guiding those different selves of yours?

Rather than saying this is who I am, it gives you more flexibility as a leader to say, In the words of Heifetz: “This is who I am under these conditions, at this moment in time, given these particular loyalties and values that are most prominent for me now.”

To thine own selves be true.


*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals





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