By Ed Batista
The topic of authenticity comes up frequently in my coaching practice. In some cases this is a function of rapid and intensive change in a leader’s role or in their company’s evolution that compels the leader to step into new responsibilities or try out new behaviors. But even in times of relative stability leaders must fulfill many different functions in organizational life, a process that often pushes them well beyond their comfort zones. As I discussed in 2017 in Leadership as a Performing Art:
A consistent theme in my work with [leaders] is addressing the stress or discomfort they feel when fulfilling certain aspects of their role. For some this occurs in formal settings before an audience… For others it happens in more spontaneous interactions… Whatever the context, at one time or another most leaders have the sense of being observed and assessed on the basis of their ability to fulfill a wide range of expectations, which can trigger uncomfortable emotions ranging from mild self-consciousness to a deeper sense of inadequacy.
Leaders also face the challenge of engaging with diverse groups of stakeholders who have different (and sometimes conflicting) needs. Senior executives, middle managers, front-line employees, clients and customers, and investors and board members all impose different obligations on a leader, who must context-shift fluidly and repeatedly as they move from one interaction to the next over the course of their day.
And in the midst of this demanding work, leaders must handle significant amounts of confidential information with discretion and tact while maintaining others’ trust. Even Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, a hedge fund known for the “radical transparency” of its culture, acknowledges that leaders must keep some information private. As Dalio writes in Principles,
Radical transparency isn’t the same as total transparency… We do keep some things confidential, such as private health matters or deeply personal problems, sensitive details about intellectual property or security issues, the timing of a major trade, and at least for the short term, matters that are likely to be distorted, sensationalized and harmfully misunderstood if leaked to the press.
So leaders are constantly 1) acting outside their comfort zones, 2) striving to meet the divergent needs of various groups, and 3) deciding what information should be disclosed and what should be withheld. Under these conditions it’s no surprise that a leader may struggle to understand what it means to “be authentic.” This challenge can be further compounded by our definition of the “authentic self” and the means by which we encounter it.
Is The Authentic Self Discovered?
A popular view of the authentic self is that it’s an identity at the core of our personalities, something we’re born with and must discover through a process of excavation. We may find this view appealing for a number of reasons. If our authentic self is already fully formed within us, then conscious efforts to modify it are fruitless, and we need not feel obligated to undertake the hard work of change.
This definition of the authentic self also allows us to avoid discomfort with a clean conscience. As I wrote in 2017, “We equate authenticity with comfort, and so if something makes us feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, then it is de facto inauthentic, which means we need not persist at it (or are relieved of our responsibility to try).” Herminia Ibarra describes a similar dynamic in The Authenticity Paradox: “Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.”
Finally, in some circumstances we all tend toward a “fixed mindset,” a mental model about ourselves that views our skills and abilities as inborn. A disadvantage of this perspective is that we view mistakes as character flaws, and as a result we take fewer risks and seek approval rather than pursue challenges. But a fixed mindset also can also allow us to evade responsibility when we encounter setbacks or failures, and viewing our authentic self as innate can have a similar effect. (“That’s just who I am.”)
But while research indicates that aspects of our personalities are inherited (although the mechanism by which this occurs is much more complex than commonly understood), it’s clear that experiential factors ranging from major life circumstances to small-scale daily activities also play a major role, suggesting that the nature of our authentic self is similarly dynamic and subject to our influence.
Or Is The Authentic Self Created?
An alternative is to view our authentic self as something that we actively create, forging it out of a combination of ongoing life experiences in the context of any inherited preferences and aversions. I first explored this idea in 2011 in Self-Monitoring and Authenticity:
What precisely do we mean by “authentic self”? Further, how do we come to know this authentic self? If we mean a sort of “elemental identity at the core of our personalities,” you might say we have to discover our authentic self; it’s revealed to our consciousness over time. But I don’t actually subscribe to this notion. I think authenticity is a dynamic and subjective state of being that we phase into and out of, not a static feature of our internal landscape.
We’re more or less authentic at any given moment, and it’s in those experiences that we feel authentic that we are our authentic selves. Of course, the dynamic and subjective nature of this state means not only that it’s changing all the time, but also that our perspective on it is changing all the time. How we define authenticity at one point in time may not be how we defined it in the past, or how we’ll define it in the future. So rather than discover our authentic selves, I believe we create our authentic selves.
We do so by trying out new behaviors and seeing how they fit with our self-concept, how they affect our relationships with others, and how they support our goals. Most new behaviors feel inauthentic at first–I can’t do this; it’s not ME! And if that feeling persists over time, we end the experiment and move on. But my experience as a coach has made it clear just how often that feeling does not persist, and how capable we are of integrating the new behavior into our repertoire, expanding what it means to be authentic as we do so. (My experience as a coach–and as a coaching client–has also highlighted the many obstacles we face in this process, from embarrassment to impatience.)
The idea that our authentic self is created, not fixed, can render us more resilient and adaptable in the face of change. But this perspective on authenticity requires us to repeatedly undergo experiences that cause discomfort and stress, and a helpful framework in this context is the Conscious Competence model. In summary, when we first engage in new activities we’re Unconsciously Incompetent–we don’t even know what mistakes we’re making. Feedback renders us Consciously Incompetent–we’re still error-prone, but at least we’re aware. If we can persist through the discomfort that this stage inevitably evokes, we become Consciously Competent–we’re succeeding, but only with a great deal of mental effort. If we invest sufficient time and energy in repeated practice our skills develop, allowing us to finally achieve Unconscious Competence–success comes more readily with less deliberation.
Bearing this model in mind can make it much easier to view our authentic self as something we create. When we’re tackling new tasks or trying out new behaviors that cause discomfort or require fatiguing conscious thought, rather than interpret those feelings as signs of “inauthenticity” we can view them merely as evidence of inexperience. Note that this approach doesn’t require us to persist indefinitely with everything that feels like a struggle–we may conclude that certain tasks or behaviors simply can’t be added to our repertoire, or that the effort required is too great or the reward too meager. But we shouldn’t be dissuaded from the attempt by fears that we’re acting “inauthentically.” Herminia Ibarra offers similar encouragement in The Authenticity Paradox:
By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs. That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.
When we subscribe to the idea that the authentic self is inborn and must be discovered, and when we associate authenticity with comfort and ease, we allow this “rigid authenticity” to hold us back. But when we entertain the possibility that the authentic self is created, and when we accept discomfort as the inevitable cost of growth, we open up new ranges of possibility and potential.