Estimated read time: 10 minutes
“I’m not going to like this guy,” he said while chuckling.
It was my friend’s first impression of me, in a group where he was the newcomer and I was an established voice. After I provided my viewpoint on something neither of us could no longer remember, this was the unspoken thought he shared with me.
“Really?!” I exclaimed in astonishment.
“Yea,” he continued, “but after the third meeting, I had a different thought: ‘Ya know, I think I like this guy!’” Now we were both laughing.
It wasn’t the first time I heard something similar. A high school friend of mine affectionately labeled me “the fungus”. “He’s like a fungus; he grows on you,” he would say while grinning (um, thanks?). Others would later express it more constructively: “I like you; you keep it real.”
Yet, it was in the conversation with the friend from that group where I had an epiphany. Each of these statements was a reaction to a character trait I have sought since I was young: authenticity. And I was pleased to be someone’s fungus.
A healthy organizational culture necessarily includes psychological safety. If your followers and servants do not feel safe enough to truly express themselves, they will inhibit whatever they think, feel and believe because they fear it will not be accepted. This means you are leading with incomplete data.
Psychological safety, in turn, necessarily includes authenticity. If I can’t be myself, then I’m not safe. Period.
Authenticity is not a virtue. It’s a character trait, composed of a few virtues practiced until they become habit (the earlier, the better). Although there are many great articles and expositions on the definition, nature, and qualities of authenticity, I boil authenticity down to just three character traits: truthfulness, vulnerability, and self-healing.
Before we can talk about these three traits, we first have to talk about how authenticity is lost.
The inner journey
You were born authentic.
This is true for all of us. It is perhaps the single most precious characteristic of babies: whether they smile, coo, or cry, each behavior is a pure expression of a genuine state of being.
And yet, before that newborn is old enough to walk, that authenticity begins to fade. Every infant quickly learns how to use his/her cry to manipulate their parents for what they want, even when it is not something they need. If you have ever been a parent of an infant or toddler fighting bedtime, you know what I mean.
Your parent’s role was to teach you how to ask for what you want, while also recognizing that some things, even if received, are not beneficial. It’s a delicate balance, rife with error, and no parent is perfect, not to mention the outside world, of which you soon engaged.
That outside world is where the first blow to your authenticity likely happened, a blow repeated many times over. If there is an antithesis to authenticity, that word would be shame. Somewhere early in life, likely before you could remember, you expressed a piece of your authentic self to an outside world, only to be quashed in return, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
You incorrectly concluded that this piece of yourself was the source of the problem, even if there was nothing wrong with your expression or behavior. “I shouldn’t say that.” “I shouldn’t do that.” “I shouldn’t be that.”
The root of shame is found in the social condition everyone avoids at all costs: isolation. You wanted to fit in; you needed to fit in. So, unless you had wise parents or mentors who intervened early in preventing this critical error of judgment, you hid that part of your authentic self, offering up something else for approval.
Each rejection resulted in hiding another piece until, as you became an adult, whole tracks of your true self were in remission, replaced by a false self. The inauthentic person is always a socially constructed creature, directly correlated with the quantity and volume of lies they incorporated into themselves in response to social stressors.
Thankfully, there is a cure.
The light of truth
Of the three traits identified above, truth is perhaps the most important.
I am not talking about objective facts, such as the sky is blue, your eyes are blue, or blue water is composed of the chemical compound H2O. Instead, I am talking about subjective truth: who you truly are, versus what you believe you are.
The discovery of the truth about ourselves often begins in adulthood, after all of our mental faculties for self-reflection are fully online (executive functioning, or your forebrain, is the last component to reach full maturity, often not until you are in college).
The first application of self-reflection to this false self is oftentimes an inconspicuous experience, an expressed word or behavior not in keeping with your beliefs about yourself (congratulations; you’re a hypocrite too). This observance leads to questions. “Why was I so insensitive?” “Why didn’t I help?” “Why did I react?” You begin to feel uneasy, dreading what the answer may be.
Some shirk these questions, adding another layer of lies to the false self already created. Others take courage, facing the answers revealing the lies they were unconsciously living. For these people, the authentic self begins to emerge from hiding. “A-ha!” you say, as you brush off the lie and bring that piece to the surface. Your authentic self rejoices and you feel better about yourself.
An authentic person is someone who embraces the wisdom of that process, and keeps digging.
Authenticity requires first facing the whole truth about yourself, both good and bad, all of your imperfections and all of your beauty. Revelation is gained when the whole mixture is examined.
No matter how vigorously you dig, you’ll eventually discover that your own subjective viewpoint is part of the problem. Some aspects of our character simply cannot be seen, just as you can’t see your backside. To gain that truth, you need the mirror of feedback from others who can see the blind spots of your character.
More to the point, you have to be open with yourself in front of others.
The diagnosis from others.
Vulnerability is scary.
Some fears are primal in nature and not easily overcome. The negative emotion of shame and the fear of isolation from your childhood will still be waiting for you when you decide to start dropping the charade. It’s why you created a false self in the first place. It was once effective for covering the spots – your critics and enemies were attacking the caricature of you, not the real you.
Unfortunately, the cure has become a disease, and it’s killing you. It is analogous to covering a tumor on your skin with cosmetics before seeing your doctor: a successful deception only serves to cause further harm to yourself.
Fortunately for you, not everyone is interested in poking the sore spots; some are genuinely interested in helping others to heal. Vulnerability is the process of revealing the sore spots to the potential doctors in your life, all while simultaneously risking damage caused by charlatans.
Knowing which is not easy to discern. Some lack the clarity for providing constructive criticism. Others believe they have clarity when they do not. Some are only interested in wounding you further. Knowing the difference means making mistakes in discerning the charlatans from the doctors.
How do we minimize the mistakes? By opening up to those who practice what they teach. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. If you lead others, you have to set the tone, and that means being vulnerable in front of your followers and servants.
Dropping the armor of the false self will result in being wounded from time to time, either from those who mean well (but failed in their diagnosis), or from those who never meant well in the first place.
Paradoxically, those wounds are necessary for the journey. It may be scary, but it’s the only way to not only discover what you are missing, but to find others like you.
The wounded healer
Not all will appreciate your journey towards authenticity.
Some will be distrustful. This was my friend’s first impression from above. The openness of authenticity is received as an unspoken demand to reciprocate trust (even though the authentic individual is not necessarily asking for it). The more authentic the individual, the greater the demand. Everyone has an experience of being abused by manipulators and deceivers. Their initial caution is understandable.
Some came to know and like your previous false self. They may ironically accuse you of being a fake (a half-truth, as you were unconsciously living a lie before). These people may abandon you, and that will hurt. Let them go. Perhaps they will also learn to be authentic someday. That’s their business, not yours.
Others will feel threatened. Those who are inauthentic (and prefer to remain so) are hiding from themselves and others. Your authentic practice, both within yourself and within your environment, threatens to drag their falsehood and lack of self-awareness into the light. Your very presence threatens to expose them, and they may attack you, even to the point of assassinating your character. If your awakening leads to the discovery that you were surrounded by deeply inauthentic people, you may experience scapegoating, as the group rushes to protect itself from you.
The results for you will be emotional, psychological, and maybe even physical pain, all stemming from criticism, rejection, and isolation. These pains are a potential stumbling point, resulting in the abandonment of the quest. The road towards authenticity is littered with wrecks, hearts withdrawn from self and others in despair, as the wounded put on the false self once again.
Don’t do this. Overcome. The healing you receive from being your authentic self will outweigh any pain you experienced to get there. You will heal from their wounds, assisted by a new array of authentic relationships helping you to get there because they, too, know the pain of reaching your authentic self.
And when you see another soul struggling for authenticity, you will discover that you have the skills to help them. The patient becomes the doctor in the life of another.
Every struggle successfully navigated produces a softness towards others regarding that struggle. There was a time when you didn’t know; why should you expect them to know? You’ll begin to help others gain the sight you now have. This softness will change your whole attitude towards others. This softness will attract those you want in your life, whether as a leader or as a follower.
This softness will bring forth the best from others in return.
The authentic effect
You weren’t the only one struggling with an inauthentic self.
Truth is, all of us start off our lives wearing masks. The only difference is between those who know this, and those who don’t.
Masks become heavier the longer we wear them. It requires the psychological equivalent of keeping your arms up indefinitely (imagine holding a mask in front of your face at a masquerade ball without end). In a world of marketing and manipulation, we crave opportunities to drop our masks without fear of reprisal.
The reward of authenticity is the removal of stress coming from the fear of what others think. That carefree attitude is attractive. When you “keep it real”, others are drawn to the real within you. Authentic people engender trust from others, resulting in dropped pretenses and genuine expressions of self. Some will give everything to have it.
Authentic people receive the truth from others more often than most, including what people really think, feel, and believe. Receiving what others truly think, feel, and believe results in better data. Better data means better solutions.
When talking about organizational culture, I often speak of the universal themes we all share in common, rallying points for creating a common narrative leading to a common vision and goals. How do I know the themes are valid? Because the data is good. I obtained the data by being authentic, and receiving authenticity in return. A lifetime of seeking and practicing authenticity has resulted in a good data set.
How do you obtain the best from your employees? Start with being authentic. In time, you won’t be able to stop the results.