Opinion: “Authenticity” should be seen and not heard

Two authors try to provide a fresh take on an old concept. One dismisses it glibly, the other chews more than she bites off.

Well here comes a fine pair, each gassing freshly about leadership “authenticity."

First: In the The Guardian, writer Peter York declares his (presumably authentic?) opinion, drawn from the (ostensibly authentic?) new book he is promoting, Authenticity Is a Con:

“I’m dead against authenticity, immediately suspicious of the word and its intentions. … Now that the public has lost faith in politicians, banks and the press, the mass of PRs, ad execs, lobbyists and researchers have been casting about for reassuring ways to represent their clients. They have seized on a language derived from the worst kind of therapy; a language that dwells on being true to your emotions, to yourself, but doesn’t demand much more. Authenticity is the key word in this language, because it implies truthfulness with no uncomfortable requirement for facts.”

As if to prove his authenticity, York afflicts the comfortable Guardian readers: “Now, here’s the uncomfortable bit: educated, thoughtful, middle-class people—Guardian readers—are every bit as susceptible to the authenticity sell as American rednecks.”

I’m relieved that no American rednecks read The Guardian (by definition, really). They would be so hurt!

As York knows, there’s nothing wrong with authenticity. There’s something wrong with people who talk about it. And something desperately wrong with people who write whole books about it.

And what is there to be said about people who do research about it?!

Meet organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra, who wrote the cover article in the current issue of The Harvard Business Review, on “The Authenticity Paradox."

“In my research on leadership transitions,” she writes, “I have observed that career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones.”

In my research on heavy drinking, I have observed that 12-14 beers in a single evening make my head fuzzy.

Whereas York glibly shoots down an infinitely complex concept in 1,000 words, Ibarra spends several thousand chewing more than she bites off. Her article (and her research) can be summed up by saying, Human identity is complicated, and so coming off as a credible human being when leading a huge corporation (or a four-man bobsled team for that matter) is not quite as easy as merely “keeping it real.”

In an excerpt from her piece most relevant to communicators, Ibarra advises us that our personal narratives—our life stories—“can become outdated as we grow, so sometimes it’s necessary to alter them dramatically or even throw them out and start from scratch.”

Find me the mid-life person who hasn’t adapted his or her self-story to fit the marriage, the kids, the big promotion, the extramarital affair, the bankruptcy and the divorce, and I’ll show you one sorry case of arrested development.

And, show me the lady or gentleman who has completely rewritten his or her personal narrative and I’ll tell you a tale about a sex-change operation, interstate fraud, a mental institution or all three.

Anybody mostly sane doesn’t need to “research” authenticity. And anybody emotionally thick enough to need to read about it won’t profit by it.

Authenticity: The more we talk about it, the less of it we have.

In fact, I'm sorry this damn post is as long as it is. Don't comment on it, whatever you do.

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