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Authenticity is a Dirty Word

||   Describe authenticity without using either of the terms “transparency” or “vulnerability.”   ||

In March, I attended a conference on Healthcare Leadership. It was three days of lectures, networking, and “bed-fries.”

One of the lectures at the conference was presented by a healthcare leader who I have virtually (online) admired over the years. Online he shows up as a real human, a CEO who truly cares about the success of the people within his organization, and the patients they care for. He is someone who embodies authenticity. In fact, that was a major topic of his lecture – authenticity.

I was very excited to hear insights from a man who embraces authenticity even though sometimes it’s hard. Even though he sits in a high-profile seat as a CEO – a position with a spotlight and criticizing eyes. I wanted to hear what he had to say on the subject because “authenticity” has become a buzzword and we’ve forgotten the true meaning of it. ‘He seems to do it well – I wonder what he’ll say about it.’

The lecture in general was informative, engaging, and lighthearted. Well done. But I didn’t quite get the insight I was after, so I made it a point to steal a minute of his time when passing in the hallway. I asked “what is your personal definition of authenticity.” And without much of a pause, he said “showing up with vulnerability and transparency.” We shook hands and went our separate ways.

And I could not deny how let down I felt. How disappointed I was in his answer; it felt to superficial. Granted, perhaps there was a more specific question I could have asked. And perhaps I set my expectations too high. But I was waiting for this deep nugget of insight from someone who seems to be so successful at authenticity – I wanted to hear a profound thought that I could share with others. I wanted to find a few words that would allow leadership development experts, like myself, to regain ownership of the word in a meaningful way.

But I didn’t. And here we are.

So I will attempt to do it myself. I would love to know what you think…

Authenticity has become a dirty word

When something becomes a buzzword we can forget the true meaning of it. There are plenty of terms in my industry that I’ve watched this happen to such as: alignment, emotional intelligence, servant leadership, work-life balance/integration, empathy or compassion, accountability, taking initiative, social responsibility, sustainability, toxic people, etc. “Authenticity” is on this list as well.

The popularity of the term has made it confusing, unclear, muddied… dirty.

Here are some common misinterpretations or misconceptions (I’ll call them myths) that I hear or read about authenticity (as it relates to leadership or personal development)… and the alternative truth:

Myth #1 – Equating authenticity with full transparency: While being authentic does involve being genuine and true to oneself, it doesn’t necessarily mean sharing every detail of one’s personal life or thoughts without discretion.

  • Truth: Authenticity involves sincerity and honesty, but it also involves self-awareness and appropriate boundaries.

Myth #2 – Equating authenticity with complete vulnerability: While being authentic involves acknowledging, owning, and expressing one’s emotions, it doesn’t mean that individuals must always express their feelings outwardly. It does not mean someone should always express their thoughts and emotions without holding back.

  • Truth: Authenticity involves managing emotions appropriately and expressing them in constructive ways, while staying true to your personal values (or in a way that reflects personal values).

Myth #3 – Seeing authenticity as static: Authenticity is often perceived as a fixed state of being – you either are are you aren’t. And this tempts people or pressures them into feeling as though they need to conform to a certain idea of authenticity, rather than embracing their growth and development.

  • Truth: In reality, authenticity is a skill and a practice. Humans are dynamic and can evolve over time. Becoming more self-aware, confident, and comfortable in your own skin are required in order to sit in a place of authenticity (and that takes time).

Myth #4 – Using authenticity as an excuse for unprofessional behavior: Some individuals may justify inappropriate behavior or lack of professionalism by claiming they are “just being authentic.”

  • Truth: Authenticity should not be an excuse for rudeness, insensitivity, or unprofessionalism.

Myth #5 – Assuming authenticity is equal to likeability: Some people mistakenly believe that being authentic means acceptance, and being liked by others. It can be scary to consider that if show up as your “authentic self” that people may not like you as you are. This can lead individuals to compromise their true selves in an attempt to please others or avoid conflict.

  • Truth: Authenticity does not guarantee universal approval or popularity. In some cases, being authentic may lead to disagreement or conflict, especially when values or opinions differ. Being true to oneself may involve making choices that not everyone agrees with.

Stripping Away the Buzz and Gettin’ Real

Since that conference I wrote about above, I have had a number of meetings with client leadership teams where authenticity became a topic of conversation. And I have challenged each of these teams to “Describe authenticity without using either of the terms ‘transparency’ or ‘vulnerability.”

Let me tell ya, it takes them effort. They all struggle with it a little bit or a lot-a-bit. They catch their tongues when those two words try to roll off here and there. But we make some exceptional progress and have some profound conversations because of this challenge. We bring back to light the real meaning of authenticity for them as a team, and for each individual. We get real.

Here are some of the common words and insights that have resulted from this informal study. Some of these are from my brain, and some are from the leadership teams:

An authentic person is…

  • Relatable
  • Approachable
  • Trustworthy
  • Genuine
  • Honest and/or Candid

Authenticity means…

  • A person can express their self without fear of judgement [this takes the right environment and level confidence]
  • A person can embrace certain personal qualities and laugh at others [this takes self-awareness, self-acceptance, and confidence]
  • There is no need to put on an act OR A person can show up as their true self [Though this one is very subjective and loaded, so we went deeper here. In summary people felt that this means they do not have to be a version of themselves that they are forced to present]

Yep. Just those things. NBD right? Well that would be another myth. Hear my sarcasm in that ‘NBD.’

Authenticity is that simple AND that complex. It’s that easy AND that hard.

It’s a challenge if you lack trust for people around you or they don’t value authenticity. It’s a struggle if you lack confidence. It’s almost impossible if you lack self-awareness to know who your authentic self even IS.

For now let’s scratch the surface with some points for why it’s worth it to strive for and embrace authenticity – even though it’s not always simple or easy:

  1. When people are authentic, they show up as their genuine selves, making it easier to trust their actions and intentions. This level of transparency fosters an environment of honesty and openness, where relationships can thrive without the need for second-guessing or hidden agendas. In a remote world where much of our communications are written (and we can’t use non-verbals or tone of voice to gain understanding or insight) being able to assume good intent is critical to healthy working-relationships and communications.
  2. Authenticity liberates individuals from the exhausting burden of pretending to be someone they’re not. When people feel free to be themselves, they can channel their energy into meaningful endeavors and interactions, leading to greater productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. People are less exhausted, overwhelmed, and burned-out. They are engaged.
  3. Embracing authenticity attracts open-minded individuals, and opportunities aligned with your true values and strengths. Instead of settling for environments where you feel merely tolerated, authenticity empowers you to seek out spaces where your unique contributions are celebrated and valued, fostering a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

In essence, authenticity in leadership is about aligning one’s words, values, and actions. It’s about recognizing the complexity and nuances of human interaction and behavior. It’s about being genuine, self-aware, and congruent, rather than simply conforming to external expectations or trends.

❓What do you think? Did I get it? Did I bring the word back down to Earth?

👉 And don’t forget. I’m always here to help you and your leadership teams gain a better understanding of what authenticity means within your organization, and how to put that into practice. You just need to reach out.


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