The Crisis of Authenticity

By Anthony Gordon Lennox

Having devoted the past decade of my working life to helping political and business leaders express themselves authentically I know how difficult it is for any public figure to achieve authenticity in today’s Britain.  

Having your every word and deed publicly dissected does not encourage you to speak authentically.  However, speaking inauthentically can rapidly translate into thinking inauthentically which in turn gives rise to stress, frustration and personal and professional confusion.  And so the vicious circle begins.

This lack of authenticity is unhealthy at a collective as well as an individual level.  It is dangerous for the political system, for the free flow of information, for freedom of speech and for the quality of debate and leadership.  At a time when voters have stopped voting and the internet is empowering ordinary people intellectually and politically – enabling them to act and react independently of political leaders and established political structures – this threatens social and national cohesion.

Something has to change, and change soon, if our political system is not to lose its democratic legitimacy and if it’s not to be hopelessly undermined by its distance from those it’s there to serve.  In particular, our political leaders urgently need to start expressing themselves authentically again.

The authentic politician

The authentic politician has four vital organs: his personality, his intellect, his social connectedness and his basic morality.  To convince the electorate of his authenticity, all four need to be functioning authentically.

Firstly, leaders need to establish personal authenticity.  Every candidate seeking high office has to weigh privacy against transparency.  They must display enough of their personal make-up, their vision and their political DNA to justify voters’ trust.  Personal authenticity therefore requires the ability to withstand a degree of scrutiny that most citizens might find intolerable, and to do so with their integrity intact.  It doesn’t require absolute disclosure.  It’s alright to be an iceberg – ninety per cent may be below the surface, but what you see gives you a fair idea of what it’s made of.   It’s not alright to be a volcano.

Intellectual authenticity means approaching policy with an open mind, not a jerking knee.  It means taking opposing points of view fully into account.  It means demonstrating that we’ve considered and care about the people whose lives individual policy decisions will affect.  It requires proof that our opinions are intellectually robust and deeply held, not just inherited.  It demands an ability to test judgments, accumulate experience and acquire new information.  Above all, it demands imagination.  Do we really think we can grasp what it looks and feels like inside a prison through intellect alone?   And speaking of prisons, how willing are we to take a stand when our opinions differ from those of our party?  It’s never good to stop thinking and challenging.

Social authenticity means, however rarefied our background or financial situation, always having one foot firmly rooted in the real world.  It requires the emotional intelligence to empathise with voters and represent them, whatever their political persuasion. It means speaking with conviction and authority, sometimes with passion, as if we own and inhabit our opinions.  We must be true to ourselves in the language we use – not a talking cog in the party machine, as if a spin doctor has taken a scalpel to whichever part of the brain controls our tongue.  It’s crucial to have an inspirational personal narrative that makes sense of our life and values, our notions of right and wrong.

Finally, our moral authenticity rests on our ability to answer truthfully the following questions: Are we in politics to help others as well as ourselves?  Are we honest?  Do we speak the truth in good times and bad?  Do we treat facts and statistics with the respect they deserve?  Are we sincere?  Are we brave?  Are our beliefs sincerely held, or are they tainted by calculation or convenience?  If sincere, are we – when it matters and when we know we’re right – brave enough to defend them?  Even against the party whips.