Why does the word ‘authenticity’ remind me of a leaking tap? Both waste precious content through neglect, misuse and overuse!
Authenticity is now t-h-e buzzword in marketing campaigns, hauled out to differentiate people, products and politics from all others vying for the same audience. As marketoonist (Tom Fishburne) recently pointed out, most advertising that flaunts ‘authenticity, is “authenticity washing. It’s boasting about authenticity without really practicing it”. Bill George, one of the pioneers of authentic leadership in businesses, decries how some leaders manipulate the term as an excuse to “embrace their inner jerk”
Yet, precisely because the word is being emptied of meaning, the need is greater than ever to rescue it from being swept away in a tsunami of platitudes. I believe that authenticity is the boat that can actually take us to the dry land of meaningful communication, meaningful living and meaningful work. How can it do all that?
What does ‘authentic’ actually mean?
Let’s begin by reining in the meaning of the word.
- Authenticity is not a “bumper sticker” that organisations can impose on teams and still continue to do business as usual. That’s contradictory management – at best.
- It’s not a button you press to suddenly become ‘authentic’. It’s a journey you embark on.
- Authenticity is not baring your soul and private life to your audience. While ‘sharing is caring’, discernment is required on what is relevant and appropriate to any specific audience and within a specific context. Also, over-sharing can quickly collapse into exhibitionism.
- It’s not an excuse to expand on your problems and struggles to colleagues, clients and friends at every opportunity. That’s opting out of taking personal responsibility to make inner changes.
- It’s not an alibi for rudeness and aggression in the name of ‘tell it like it is’. That’s just unbridled narcissism and/or a form of bullying.
One of my favourite explanations of what authenticity is, comes from Brené Brown, a research-storyteller as she calls herself: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
What I like about her definition is that she emphasises that authenticity is what we actively DO, a way of living we have to consciously PRACTICE on a day-to-day basis. In other words, we all have the ability and the opportunity to live authentically – if we so choose.
Another aspect of her definition that I find helpful is that living authentically evolves as we evolve. It is something we engage in on a moment-by-moment basis in the different ways we show up every day, rather than a combination of qualities set in stone. Also, because authenticity is something we practice in each and every situation, it’s more difficult to separate our lives into authentic roles and less authentic ones. Consequently, it helps break up the distinctions we impose on how we live privately and how we work professionally.
What does that mean if we extend the practice into our business? According to Howard Schultz, owner of Starbucks, authenticity is the key to businesses surviving because, “the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”
Schultz captures some of the factors relevant for businesses in the term authenticity: real, sustainable, enduring and built from the inside out, i.e. from the human heart and spirit. In a world in which every service and product is competing for attention and our trust in institutions, big and small, is plummeting on an hourly basis, it’s the human element that makes a business stand out and differentiates it from others.
Why? It’s the human element that connects us with each other and enables us to create trustworthy, meaningful relationships. According to recent research about customer brand choice, authenticity was the top brand attribute. So, how do you create an authentic relationship with your clients that’s built on trust and gives an identity to your brand?
The Road to Authenticity: the natural versus the normal you
Let’s go back to our definitions above. If authenticity is, as Brené Brown claims, something we practice, how do we DO it? If it’s an inside job, as Schultz, reminds us, how do we take it from there into the world of business?
So, when you come to that fork in the road, here are a few pointers to direct you:
- Be prepared to expand your comfort zone. Unless you have grown up in outer space, you have learned to respond to the expectations of others, varying from well-meaning parents to crushing authoritarian institutions. Choosing to ‘show up and be real’ is a step into the unfamiliar. In that unfamiliar territory you will discover that much of what you have considered your ‘normal’ self is, in fact, not the ‘natural’ you at all.
- Living the natural you is not without an element of risk-taking, of setting new boundaries, i.e. saying ‘no’ more often that you used to, of letting the latest trends bypass you in favour of making conscious choices, based on what feels aligned with the inner you.
- When you let your natural self come through, it automatically brings a sense of flow and synchronicity into your life that being ‘normal’ blocks out.
- Establishing your company’s mission, purpose and values is not an exercise in making a list of lofty, aspirational terms. Observe HOW you do business, how you interact with all the people in your life, what motivates you, what inspires you, what annoys you, what you stand for in the choices you make, what comes easily to you, etc. That’s who you are. You distill your values and vision from the life you LIVE every day, not by filling out a checklist.
- Authenticity is something you practice every day by engaging with the world. When you live according to your own inner compass, you automatically create a ripple effect that encourages others to do likewise. That’s when you begin connecting with colleagues, employees and customers at a more meaningful and transparent level, one that builds sustainable trust and authentic relationships.
I’d like to leave you with another definition of authenticity that nails it for me: “an authentic life is one well-lived”, particularly since it is used in the context of the artist Gaelynn Lea, who has a profound congenital disability AND produces amazing music that expresses all of who she is. Take the time to listen to her here.