Authenticity is a popular topic that I frequently hear discussed in a number of different contexts. In personal growth, relationships, professional development, leadership and performance—authenticity shows up as a highly desired trait. This widely pursued aim is especially prized in hyper-individualistic cultures where every individual’s uniqueness is one of the unquestioned goals.
Whether you’re at home with your partner and your family, at dinner with friends, pursuing the next athletic win, or in the office leading and managing the next steps for organizational success, this idea of being more authentic, and the cultural preference to be authentic, often seduces us as “the way” we should or ought to be able to show up.
While being more authentic is a popular frame of reference for working on ourselves personally and professionally, most of us fail to clearly define it. It remains a nebulous, unexamined term that can, and often does, change.
In our drive to be more authentic we often are captured by two unexamined assumptions. Both of these assumptions are mistakes if we value adult development and growing new capabilities.
First: Authenticity is not the same as competence
The first assumption sees authenticity as some way of being that is more competent than you currently are. Unfortunately, authenticity and competence are not synonymous, although many of us would like them to be. (Authentic leadership is not necessarily more effective leadership, it’s just leadership that feels more “at home” to you.)
The problem here is that competitive markets aren’t all that interested in whether you’re feeling authentic to yourself. Markets and the people that drive them are interested in how much innovative value can be introduced into the market. And real innovation usually demands us to do new things that are fundamentally awkward and uncertain.
Said another way, in order to innovate, you may need to take action that feels distinctly foreign to you. And the feeling of being outside your comfort zone and leaning into uncertainty is not a feeling most people associate with “authenticity.” (When I ask my clients to define authenticity, I assure you that I almost never hear “oh, you know Rob, those really anxiety producing maneuvers that feel awkward, clumsy and fraught with mistakes.”)
So the problem with the idea that authenticity makes us more competent is subtle, yet powerful. First of all, because when our minds purchase this idea as truth, we’ve already bought into a sense of deficiency. This sense of our own deficiency quickly produces a fantasy of our future self that presumably leads us out of our shortcomings. The imagery, conceptions and scenarios about how you might be able to be more of yourself (and thereby be more competent) moves your attention away from your deficiencies. This in turn insulates you from the more visceral, direct embodied sensations of being inadequate—which are essential for you to feel if you’re going to develop.
So in this first type of mistake, our idea of what “authentic” is gets filled with our ideas about who we’d most like to be, what we’d really like to be able to do, and how we’d most like to feel. Regardless of how these notion of authenticity gets fleshed out, fantasy is chosen over a less-comfortable reality.
Second: Authenticity is not the same as “whoever I am right now”
The second type of assumption about authenticity tends to surface more readily when we’re comfortable and feel like we’re doing well in our lives. Instead of authenticity cropping up as an inspired aim for us when we’re feeling inadequate, this next assumption asserts that authenticity is who I am, not who I might be able to become.
I see this quite a bit when people are more or less comfortable. Life isn’t exquisite. It isn’t breaking their heart with gratitude, love and inspired passion. Nor are they overtly suffering and in pain. They are simply comfortable, somewhere in between.
When authenticity commingles with your comfort, watch out!
When this happens, we tend to keep ourselves right where we are in the name of being true to ourselves. Whoever we are in this moment, unquestioned, is our authentic self. As such, it should be respected and accepted. Any kind of a challenge is seen as an insult to one’s own deepest authenticity.
This is a powerfully manipulative way to push back on the world in what I call “self-aware defiance.” The message is clear, “don’t ask me to be different.” The problem is, the world has an unwavering agenda to make all of us into something else through our lives and, ultimately, through our deaths. And when we resist this agenda, we often resist our own further development.
In both scenarios above, the drive to be “authentic” can, and often does stunt development. In the first situation, we’re nursing a relationship with fantasy and projections, and in the second we’re justifying unexamined parts of ourselves—both in the name of being authentic.
So the principle challenge I see is this: authenticity is all-too-often hijacked by the parts of us that want to be comfortable.
Either I’m entering into my own fantasy world as a means of fleeing the uncomfortable realities of my limitations, or authenticity is securing my footing in an already existing comfortable sense of self.
Why fantasies stunt development
If I’m uncomfortable, anxious and overwhelmed and I knowingly or unknowingly make the first mistake above (like most of us do), then what you’ll find is that I’m held captive by a fantasy of how I may be once I am able to be “more authentic.” Immersed in my fantasy, I’ll avoid contact with the direct and immediate sensations of the reality that is creating anxiety in me.
For example, let’s say I get challenged at work by someone I manage. In the moment when I’m challenged, I feel caught between wanting to disagree, but also wanting my colleague to like me and for our relationship to be in a good place. As a result, I don’t voice my disagreement (even though part of me wants to), and the conversation ends.
Later on, I’m sitting in my office thinking about “authentic leadership.” I start reviewing the challenge and thinking about being able to authentically assert myself. In my mind, I replay the scenario, except this time I behave the way I’d like to behave—asserting myself in a confident and authentic way.
The problem here is that as my fantasy world unfolds in my head, I’m actually unplugging myself from reality.
I’m avoiding some of the intensity of what it’s like for me to be disturbed.
Instead of relating directly to my anxiety and the texture of what it feels like for me to lose power in relationship, I’m fantasizing about being more “authentic,” powerful and direct. Why am I doing this? Because thinking about this alternative version of me makes me feel more comfortable about myself.
This disconnect between me and the uncomfortable contours of myself and my reality is a tactic that keeps me comfortable, but stunts adult development. If I really want to grow, I actually need more intimacy with the anxiety and disturbance that I feel when I lose power in relationship.
Why “being yourself” stunts development
In the second scenario (where the strategy for authenticity is to stay right where I am), there’s a different pattern that plays out.
In this case, I’m most likely already in a comfortable spot. I’m feeling good. I’m confident in myself. I feel like me, the “real” me. Yet, when a new opportunity presents itself or when a significant challenge comes my way, you’ll find me backing down and drawing back into my safe zone.
Why? Well, the world is in some way asking me not to be myself. And that’s not okay with my “authentic self.” I’m hanging out firmly (which secretly means enslaved) in the idea of being “true to myself.” I’m following my values and making decisions that serve my “authentic self”— which is simply where I happen to be most comfortable right now.
The second assumption inside of authenticity restricts and narrows our contact with more uncertain and anxiety-provoking realities by keeping us right where we are in our “safe zone.”
If I am interested in growing, I’m going to have to step into experiences that are uncomfortable because they don’t just affirm me for being the way I already am.
Authentic leadership should feel uncomfortable
In the workplace, most expressions of authentic leadership fall prey to these two pitfalls. In either case, our habits to reduce anxiety and remain comfortable limit what we could become.
Leadership is not about you being authentic, if your idea of authenticity is invisibly constrained by the assumptions described above.
To lead is to take you and the people around you somewhere new. But if your vision of authenticity is driving you to lead into a fantasy of your own construction, or a resolute assertion of where you already are, you’re avoiding the discomfort of leading into the unknown.
And if you’re not leading into an uncertain and unformed future, then you’re not actually leading. You’re repeating. And, in my humble opinion, repetition isn’t leading.
The act of stepping courageously into uncertainty—of boldly co-creating a new yet-to-be-formed future—can’t be done by your “authentic self,” at least not according to how most of us conceive of authenticity. To lead, you need to get access to a bigger authenticity that is outside yourself.
The real leadership innovations that carry us beyond the knowns of today into unknown futures are best facilitated by a self that is always giving itself over to a process of becoming something else.
I don’t believe Life is ultimately interested in who I am, or you are. Life’s agenda for all of us is to discover who we can become together. As long as leadership is held captive by too-small notions of ideal authenticity, our future generations will suffer our leadership failures. And, our present day institutions and organizations will limp along without the bold direction that a less certain, yet more courageous leadership could provide.
Let’s be suspicious of our ideas about authenticity. Our world is asking for something quite different than our authentic comfort.
Creator of Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work
Harvard University Teaching Fellow
Leadership Coach & Author of The Elegant Self
Faculty & Coach, Integral Facilitator Certificate Program