The Problem with Being Authentic

Andy Cohen is the affably vivacious host of BRAVO Television’s late-night talk fest “What Happens Live.” Like him or hate him, Cohen has created a hard-to-ignore reality television empire at BRAVO.

I view this show as an authentic, no bullshit experience, he croons in the November 2014 issue of Details Magazine. Cohen is describing his talk show. I cringe.

Not at Cohen. No, at the ease with which we toss about the word “authentic.” Ever since Bill George popularized the notion of Authentic Leadership in his book True North, we have steadily killed the meaning of the word. Andy Cohen is describing a carefully curated, packaged and produced television event.

Authentic? As if we all agreed on what the heck “authentic” is.

“I Have To Be Authentic With People.”

It has become the most overused leadership cliché of the past decade or so. Mind you, I am in favor of not being inauthentic. But you and I can authentically be many things. Which authentic self will you bring?

I think of a chat I have with Vera O’Neill, President of a product division within a highly profitable marketing empire. Vera and I are talking about how to play well with folks who have social power. She mentions her relationship with Chuck, the empire’s legal counsel. Chuck, it is clear, pushes Vera’s buttons. He is the quintessential young buck climbing the social ladder, with a lot of bravado in the mix.

In a way Chuck is so transparent, Vera sighs. You just need to stroke his ego a lot to get things done. Another sigh. But I have to be authentic with people.

Are there things you genuinely appreciate about his gifts as a lawyer? I inquire.

Yes, there are, Vera sheepishly admits.

And can you authentically let him know that you appreciate those things? I ask.

I guess so. Vera says it with a pained look on her face.

We say authentic when we mean vulnerable. We say it when we mean genuine, truthful, direct. When we mean “act according to our values.” When we long to express a feeling we have. Why not toss the word “authentic” and say what we actually mean?

“Just Be Yourself.”

Another authenticity cliché. I cringe every time I hear these words. Let’s be clear. At work, nobody wants you to just be yourself. We want you to make choices about the self you bring.

Channel the you that enhances execution and personal connection. Check the other selves at the door. Here’s a bit of wisdom from someone who precedes the likes of Bill George and Andy Cohen.

I’ve learned that it’s what you leave OUT of a performance, not what you put INTO it, Tony Bennett says. Less is more. It’s not because of my age, but it’s the right thing to do.

Tony Bennett is 88. He knows.

When you style a song, there’s the craft of singing. And there are the choices you make while you sing. Yes, less is often more. Just one of many authentic choices a performer makes.

When you lead, please don’t be yourself. Bring your BEST self. Make sure your best self comes wrapped in a bit of craft. Be vulnerable when your vulnerability will be helpful to those you lead. Use keen judgment about what to leave OUT.

And stop worrying about being authentic.