Reclaiming Authenticity: What is Authentic Leadership & What Is Not?
Our mission at AGL is helping leaders become more authentic communicators. We have worked extensively with psychologists, psychotherapists and researchers in the fields of psychometrics and communications, to build effective models that help people become more authentic.
What does Authentic mean when it’s applied to communication?Authentic communicators are successful in every field, from corporate boardrooms to primary classrooms, from hospital wards to charity fundraisers. Authenticity is the tangible expression of an evidence-based leadership practice. It’s a process that builds trust and improves performance. Authentic leaders engage more effectively with their teams, feel more comfortable being themselves, and build workplaces where everyone can feel more included.
But… there’s a problem. Over the past few years, the concept of authenticity has been hi-jacked to mean something that is more akin to emotional, knee-jerk reactions, often rooted in anger, rather than self expression that is deeper and more thoughtful. Authentic and the quality of being authentic (authenticity) have become buzz words, and that can sometimes confuse their meaning. The word authenticity is often misused to describe something that isn’t authentic at all, a style of leadership and communication that is in the pursuit of shock and awe, ultimately diminishing trust and reducing productivity.
Just because something is communicated bluntly, raw, unfiltered, and unrehearsed doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authentic. And when we start to interpret anything maverick as definitely authentic, then we risk getting into dangerous territory.
What is Authentic?
If you want to go back to linguistic basics, authenticity describes something genuine, undisputed, not a copy. It describes the quality of originality, of a faithful recreation of an original form (like authentic cuisine), it also means factual accuracy and reliability (an authentic account of events) and in more philosophical usage, it means a responsible and emotionally appropriate mode of human life.
In other words, authenticity — when applied to the person — is constructed from a set of building blocks like personal values, professional integrity, mindfulness, and attention to detail. It is underpinned by thoughtfulness and a responsibility for what you say.
What is Not Authentic?
Saying the first thing that comes into your head, unfiltered and unrehearsed for the audience you are speaking to, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily authentic. It might just be vocalising your inner train of thought. It’s chat.
Chat isn’t always communication
Humans are unique in the animal kingdom because of chat. We are the only species who chatter, i.e. exchange vast quantities of personal information unrelated to some aspect of subsisting in the wild. Chatting is important, but it’s not always valid communication.
Animals don’t chat. They make vocalisations which signify territorial claims, pack status, mating desires, raise alarms or identify food sources. Humans post LOL emojis on cute cat pics. That’s not a matter of survival, it’s something more chatty. Our brains give us dopamine rewards when we chat, it’s neurochemistry that makes us supremely social (we instinctively seek people to chat with) and it’s a large part of why we are so fascinated by social media and snapping pictures of our lunch and so on. We evolve behaviours like putting emojis on cat pics because it is an excuse for more chat, and more dopamine rewards.
Chat also plays an important role in the way our brains work out how we feel about something. Our unconscious minds process information by making us chat. It’s where the idea of talking as a decision-making process comes from. We couldn’t negotiate, debate or share ideas and opinions if our brains knew exactly what we thought about everything before we began speaking, there would be no point.
Human language is uniquely recursive, because the process of speaking often enables us to work out what we actually wanted to say when we began talking.
There has been a movement — notably in the last few years of populist politics — where leaders who “Tell it like it is” are lauded by their supporters for being refreshingly honest and direct, however, that is an assumption that simply doesn’t bear scrutiny. They are neither being especially honest, or particularly direct.
You might have observed that leaders who market themselves on “Telling it like it is” are often caught out reversing their position, changing their stance or dismissing previous remarks as being taken out of context.
You might also have noticed that “Telling it like it is” provokes defensive reactions, isolates people, and stimulates opposition. Figures who “Tell it like it is” are frequently referred to as divisive.
An authentic communicator realises they have to be mindful of their own opinion and biases, take a considered viewpoint and recognise the concerns of their audience. Authenticity means adapting your approach to engage — as opposed to alienate — your audience.
The goal of authentic communications is making people listen not switch off… in the same way the goal of authentic leadership is being followed, not dragging people against their will.