C. G. Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you are.” I can’t think of a better benefit of the ideal entrepreneurial journey. Indeed, I’ve been crying it from the rooftops for many years. More than almost any vocation I can think of, excepting that of artist, the entrepreneur has a unique opportunity to truly become herself.
That said, however, I have become uneasy of late with the growing unison of approbation for authenticity as the latest magical solution to our various business leadership conundrums. Like all fads, the current lemming-like chorus of hosannas around the purported alchemy of authenticity can lead us to some less than salutary results for the practical entrepreneur.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe passionately that corporate leadership must move increasingly toward an empathetic model very much grounded in authenticity and openness. I believe this and apply this each and every day in my own business and in my own life. But, like all truths, it can become a dangerous dogma, if not leavened with a few caveats.
The Merriam-Webster defines authenticity as “the quality of being real or genuine, not copied or false.” The problem with this for company leaders is that authenticity is not a goal we arrive at, but rather a process we try to embrace each day anew. It is an evolving inner truth that can feel quite precarious in a business world moving at the speed of light.
Evolving authenticity requires daily attention to our own soul. Most of us feel comfortable with a definitive set of absolutes so we can say (like Martin Luther), “Here I stand.” I certainly do. But that is not how existential authenticity works in reality.
The greatest danger of committed authenticity is that it can become a backdoor, closeted way of rigidly holding onto what is comfortable.
The Harvard Business Review had an interesting piece in February titled, The Authenticity Paradox by Dr. Herminia Ibarra, who’s research indicates that a too-rigid definition of authenticity can undermine effective leadership. She points to three ways authenticity can mislead us.
- Being True To Yourself. The question is which self? We all have many selves depending on our various leadership roles at any given time. It ain’t one size fits all. A rigid authenticity may not fit all situations.
- Maintaining Strict Coherence Between What You Feel And What You Say Or Do. It is simply not appropriate or discreet or even kind to disclose everything you feel and think in all situations.
- Making Values-Based Choices. When we move into bigger business roles, our past authenticity may no longer be true on a larger palette.
Ibarra goes on to say, “Because going against our natural inclinations make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.” She notes three other particular business issues that cause challenges for the authentic leader. First, the velocity of contemporary business militates more frequent and more radical changes in the way we handle the work we do. Second, in our increasingly globalized business environment, we must adjust to people who have cultural norms different from our own. Third, we have to consider our authenticity in the context of “ubiquitous connectivity” and social media transparency. It is a conundrum of managing the tension between projecting authenticity and welcoming approachability.
The rush to the authentic leader model emanates from a couple of factors in our current business atmosphere. First the contemporary opinion of business leaders is somewhat lower than whale shit. The Edelman Trust Barometer notes that in 2013 only 18% of people reported they trusted business leaders. And, secondly, according to Gallup, also in 2013, only one in eight workers is psychologically committed to his or her job.
Certainly committed authenticity and leader transparency can do much to alleviate the current popular low estimation of business leadership. And we, as business leaders, should welcome this new leadership style, if only for our own spiritual and moral health. A nuanced authenticity creates meaningful business at the intersection of success, struggle, values and purpose.
After all, as Oscar Wilde puts it so trenchantly, who wants to be a person who “does not think natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. Who’s virtues are not real to him. Who’s sins…are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part not written for him.” And here’s a wonderful call to arms for the entrepreneur from Jungian psychologist Dr. James Hollis: “We are not here to fit in, to be well-balanced, or provide exempla for for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.”
Nevertheless, as Dr. Ibarras’ research reveals, an effective leadership style must be nuanced and prudent in its commitment to a new empathetic trope. Those of us who try to be true to ourselves must guard against using authenticity as an excuse for becoming too content in a too smug and too rigid comfort zone.