Authenticity Alarm Bells

by | News

I have long been a passionate believer in the fact that authenticity matters. Perhaps now, more than ever before, because, in an age where the tweet is more toxic than the sword, concealing the tensions inherent in the complex balancing acts we play becomes less possible every day.

Sir Martin Sorrell’s ability to cut through to the heart of a topic is legend, and in an interview with me on this he didn’t disappoint. Not missing a beat, he fires off a definition of authenticity, plus two compelling reasons for it, in three crisp phrases.

“Authenticity means being genuine. You need to be genuine to be successful. When you’re not genuine, you will be found out.”

Hard to argue with.

Why then does authenticity remain curiously un-pin-downable, as testified by the forests of academic papers and management texts on the topic? Authenticity is about the self, and we all have very different selves. So while we may agree on dictionary-style definitions, things get complicated when we try to capture ‘authentic characteristics’ or ‘authentic behaviours’. ‘Authentikos’ is an ancient greek word and it means exactly what we use it for today – genuine. Behind that lie two smaller words,‘self ’ (autos) and ‘armour’ (entea). When you’re wearing your own armour, you’re authentic. I can see and appreciate your authenticity (or worry at your lack of it) and you can do the same for me. But your authentic and my authentic cannot, by definition, be the same. Copying really is not good enough.

Authenticity Alarm bells

How can you identify when authenticity is absent or at risk of being compromised? I have developed a handy checklist of 10 alarm bells that highlight exactly that:

1. When facts get distorted. As soon as you find yourself, or see others, massaging or manipulating the facts, for whatever legitimate reasons, watch out.

2. When authenticity gets muddled with passivityToo many people reach a personal comfort zone and happily remain in it, waiting to be recognised and feted for what they are. In doing so they sign their own personal career death warrant.

3. When you play out your own damage on others. We’re all damaged in some way: if you’re authentic you will recognise your own damage and do your best to deal with it. You will not pass it on.

4. When you’re dealing with an alien culture. Authenticity can look very different in different cultures. If you think ‘one size fits all’ across global boundaries, your authenticity bubble is likely to be pricked.

5. When you hold back from asking a ‘too obvious’ questionIf something’s on your mind but a fear of seeming ignorant keeps you silent, you’re putting your own ego ahead of proper risk management.

6. When the culture is prickly about feedback. When people are reluctant to give or take feedback, they put up an unbreakable barrier between themselves and self-knowledge.

7. When someone is clearly in it for themselves. Ambition is not a dirty word, but if in truth you’re only looking out for your own future, beware: at some point you will have to claim you’re in it for the greater good, and at that point you will stop being authentic. It will be spotted.

8. When there’s a gap between words and actions. Inconsistency always betrays inauthenticity.

9. When your authenticity infringes on others. In considering the footprint of your own authenticity, you need to think about the effect it’s going to have on other people, people whose support you need. If that’s a negative effect then there will be trouble.

10. When you need a prepared script. Leaders should have sufficient knowledge 
of and passion for their ventures not to need prepared scripts except for the most politically delicate contexts. They needn’t be great orators, but they do need to be able to speak from the heart with conviction. 

Three principles of authenticity: How to get it right!

Having reviewed the warnings of absent authenticity, I will take you through my three principles of how to get it right. The first two correspond broadly to well- explored management theory around the topic. The third is more unexpected.

1. Know your self. The oldest injunction of them all never loses its force and relevance. Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living. Giving yourself the time, and forcing yourself to have the honesty and humility, to take a good long objective look at yourself, is a constant and vital part of becoming and remaining authentic. Self-knowledge also brings with it a responsibility to improve and correct. If you’re a bully and you see that but don’t change it, you’re not just a bully, you’re now a stupid bully.

2. Learn to filterThis is where authenticity must make friends with diplomacy: if you want to get ahead, one of the most important things to learn is how to tell people things they may not want to hear, in a way that they will find acceptable.

3. Love what you do. If authenticity is about yourself, unless at some deep level you as a person can connect with, believe in, and even love what you do, you will never be truly authentic. A lot of people in business tell me they’d be fulfilled by working for a charity, I tell them they need to find the cause in what they’re doing already, not always look elsewhere… My litmus test when considering a new role would be – write your own theoretical press release describing why you’re taking this job. Can you imagine standing up and talking about it to strangers with genuine conviction, explaining why you have taken this role, why doing it matters to you? If not, don’t take the job.