Why ‘authentic’ is the only way to be
How often in my life have I heard: ‘but you cannot do that’, ‘that is not how it’s done’ or ‘that cannot be done’!
My response, whether quietly in my mind, or said out loud was: just watch me!
Whether it was declaring that I’d complete my architectural degree within the minimum 4 years (when 5-6 were the norm) when I realise after the first year that it was not for me but decided to finish before staring something else. Whether it was deciding to have my home address as company address rather than going for one of those letter-box options, back in 1992 when it was definitely rather uncommon. Or whether it is not giving up on my perhaps sometimes a little flowery use of language and emoticons, despite people telling me that it might be perceived a little unprofessional.
As long as I do no harm, I just cannot see why I should be held back by what customarily is or isn’t done; or pretend that something is when it isn’t – like my company having a posh address when the truth is that I am working from home – which is what I have been doing since 1992. More recently, during lock-down, I show my ‘natural habitat’ when joining online meetings, with occasional piles of paper and most certainly my very colourful wallpaper being visible. I was surprised how quickly online meeting places were offering fake backgrounds – especially as the technology isn’t quite there yet, and people’s hands or parts of their heads disappear… Yet a very large proportion of those whom I meet online seem to deem this to be more ‘professional’ than showing their home environment. Why pretend? Everyone knows most of us are working from home, so why not share a bit of ourselves by showing what our context actually looks like? Why not allow a bit of our personality, of our personal lives to trickle into our professional world? It communicates instantly something about me, and allows people whom I might have never met before get a glimpse into who and what I am. What is wrong with that?
Not only can I not see anything wrong with that, I actually think that in today’s world it is more important than ever to be authentic.
Why do I feel the urge to write about it, now? Two sets of reasons, one is more professional, the other more personal.
Let’s start with the professional.
In today’s world there seems to be less and less time to dance around each other in order to get to know each other. Hierarchies are disappearing, things are happening faster, are more complex and diverse, and our public and private lives are converging. We can no longer rely on external factors to understand whom we should follow, or what should guide our decision making; we have to develop different criteria. Such criteria will rely on our ability to understand others, and even more importantly, ourselves. Only then can we, as individuals and organisations, communicate clearly what we are about and what we stand for, and by doing so get others to engage with us, to follow us.
Which is why there is no context where authenticity is more important than the context of leadership. I have expressed this in the forthcoming book ‘Secrets of working across 5 continents’, written with my inspirational friend and colleague Meltem Etcheberry, as follows:
- In a complex world we need leaders who can see the emerging patterns, and translate them into visions; we are seeking leaders who can offer direction and clarity in this confusing world, so that we can understand, and engage.
- In a complex world we need leaders who know who they are and what their contribution is, and who can help others understand themselves and their contribution.
- In a complex world we have no time for political games, no time to guess and second guess what the real motivations behind actions and decisions are; if we want to make decisions in real time, we need to be able to take what’s being said at face value.
- In a complex world we need leaders who have the humility and courage to let go of (the illusion of) control, allowing space for creation.
I also believe that in a world of too much choice authenticity carries weight with customers; authenticity inspires trust, loyalty, and engagement. Would you be loyal to someone, or be fully engaged with something, when you are uncertain what s/he/it stands for? Perhaps it is no surprise that levels of engagement in the workplace are such a challenge?
The way Pete Prowitt, Director of Sales at Loom, describes the changed context in the world of sales is another powerful argument why auhenticity is more important today: you simpe cannot get away with pretending, so you might as well stop!
Rather interesting that Maryam Kouchaki found in her research that people are more likely to engage in unethical behaviour when they separate their personal and business lives – which for me is another way of being inauthentic, and brings me neatly to some thought on the more personal.
I have noticed an inner rebellion when people tell me ‘you are too this or that’, or when I am asked ‘to play it cool’ when I am just so excited about that something! Why can I not share my enthusiasm? Case in point: flat hunting in Munich, I eventually found one that I absolutely loved. This definitely came across loud and clear I the email I sent to the vendor. A very dear and wonderful friend, who was helping me in my quest to find a new home in Munich and whom I had copied into this mail, immediately aired his concern, saying that I should not seem too keen, that would weaken my negotiating position. He is a very old friend, and one whose opinion I deeply value – yet … Just because I am keen, and am openly communicating this, does not mean that I have let go of my senses and reason. It does not mean that I cannot also look at it objectively and critically. In fact, I would argue that being very aware of my enthusiasm, I am more inclined to want to balance this with some rational reflection. What I do not like is playing games, be political, pretend to want one thing when really I want something else. (I am wondering how many people played this game in the Brexit vote…). With me people get what they see and hear: I mean what I say and (mostly) say what I think.
And you know what, the ones who advise against showing emotions, who get nervous when I use my flowery language, tend to be men. Come to think of it, I am not sure I’ve ever had a female friend cautioning me on this front …
I believe that not putting on masks, not playing politics, not pretending we are something we are not, makes us more human, allows deeper connections, and enables us to establish rapport faster – something many of us are craving in these physical-distancing times …
It warms my heart (and mind and soul) to hear what (female) political leaders such as Jacinda Ardern say: “We teach kindness and empathy and compassion to our children but then we somehow, when it comes to political leadership, want a complete absence of that. So I am trying to chart a different path. That will attract critics. But I can only be true to myself.”
What a contrast to the leader of country the world used to look to for guidance…
Should you want to explore the top of authenticity a little further, here a couple of books that will get your started:
“Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? – What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader” (2006)
“Authenticity: What Consumers Really Wan” (2007) by James H. Gilmore & B. Joseph Pine II
“Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead” (2015) by Henna Inam
… and then there is of course my forthcoming book “Secrets of Working Across Five Continents: Thriving Through the Power of Cultural Diversity” (2020) where one of the four chapters is dedicated to ’Visionary and Authentic Leadership’