Can you tell which one is the real duck? Uhm, yeah. It’s pretty obvious.

Behaving authentically means that you behave in a manner consistent with your own values, beliefs and ideals (as opposed to those of other people or organizations), and that you also express yourself; this means that the person you portray to others is an accurate representation of who you really are rather than playing a part or role.  “Authenticity” has become a hot watch word for leadership books in the last 20 years.  Good leaders, leaders who are trustworthy and act in good faith are authentic.

But this view of leadership is fairly novel, not to mention western-centric.  Nobody was talking about it in the 1950s and 60s, and nobody is talking about it in Asia or the Middle East or even eastern Europe.  In the 1970s when it became popular to “find yourself” and “self-actualization” became a spiritual goal for many people, the movement toward authenticity as a core value was born.  For many, it is a foregone conclusion that it’s morally superior.  Early generations revered duty and community values (social good) over individualization and freedom of expression.  Authenticity is a current trend.  And yet, it’s got merit in building interpersonal trust.  Psychologically, it’s more valuable for a leader to be authentic, comfortable in her own skin, than to be charming or incisive.  Relationships in general are more trusting when built on a base of authenticity.

And yet, hierarchy, by its very nature, undermines authenticity.  Consider the following:

  • How do you act when you are in a position of authority?  Do you have an obligation to portray your organization’s values over your own at times?  Isn’t that also part of the duty of a leader?
  • How do you act around someone you consider to be an authority figure?  Does self-interest pressure you to behave in a certain way?

Commenter Cowboy once commented that people won’t disclose the whole truth to a bishop once they’ve made up their minds to leave the church because many who’ve left never had a relationship with those individuals in positions of authority anyway, and they don’t desire one now that they are leaving. They view people in the church who are contacting them to be doing so based on duty and stewardship, but often not because of an established relationship with them.  Relationships up to that point may lack authenticity or real self-disclosure.  Many relationships in life do.

Living in Asia, there was no hand-wringing over authenticity the way there is in the US.  Anglos were more aware of this value than the Asians I met and worked with and used it conversationally at work in ways that did not occur in the Asian cultures I worked in.  Within Asian cultures, community values trump personal interests.  Saving face for the group is more important than honesty.  People do not indulgently navel-gaze to the extent that we do in western culture.  And people are accustomed to far more authority in their governments than we are, authorities they rely on to keep order and provide economic stability.

Put on a happy face. Or else.

A person may choose to be inauthentic with others for a few reasons:

  1. Self-protection.  They perceive people to be inauthentic in their interest. As it says in the New Testament, cast not your pearls before swine.  They don’t want to unveil their personal views, beliefs, or needs in front of someone who will misunderstand them.  Of course, this casts the believing person in the role of swine.  Refusing to be authentic in this case is an indictment of the other person; it’s a deliberate decision to avoid self-disclosure for reasons of self-protection.
  2. Personal empowerment.  They desire “boundaries” because they themselves had a view of their role as subordinate to those individuals (when they were an insider) and part of leaving involves reclaiming their power.
  3. Social conscience.  They want to protect others who are happy from the difficulty of a faith crisis.  This assumes that the “facts” will be interpreted the same by all people, and that this interpretation will necessarily be negative.  Conversely, some will deliberately self-disclose to proselyte a contrary viewpoint for what they deem social good.
  4. No benefit.  There is nothing to gain from self-disclosure.  This presupposes that we only disclose our thoughts for reasons of self-interest, which is of course true sometimes.  But it turns relationships into a cost-benefit analysis, politically motivated for personal gain.
Authority is scary.

While this second reason is one people discuss a lot in online forums, it also seems somewhat unnecessary. If you are being authentic, someone else’s “authority” bounces right off of you. Consider this analogy. If you secretly know you have a new job, and your boss at your current job wants to meet with you to exert her authority, how much do you care? Not that much. You may even find it secretly amusing. You have disengaged from the relationship and have nothing terribly important at stake.  There’s nothing quite so satisfying as talking to your boss when you have two better job offers in your pocket.  But that’s because a boss-employee relationship is unequal and by its nature, authority adds pressure that works against authenticity.  If you participate in a hierarchical structure, you are accepting a role within that structure.

My daughter was pointing out to me that it’s sexist that girls can’t pass the sacrament.  I said since she had a youth interview after sacrament meeting, she should tell the bishop what she thought.  She said, “No way! He’s scary!”  I pointed out that he’s not scary at all.  He’s a very nice guy.  She said he was a nice guy in real life, but as bishop he’s scary because of his role.  And plus he can’t do anything about it.  She is simply pointing out the nature of hierarchical relationships, and at the age of 12, she’s already feeling the need to censor herself.  Kids learn this at a very young age, of course, dealing with their teachers and even parents, seeking approval from those on whom they rely for their very survival.  I said she didn’t need to feel that way,  that he would not be bothered by her honest feelings.  Then I pointed out he would probably think I put her up to it since I’m her parent and many people think kids are just parroting what they hear at home (which in this case is not so).

So it is with many of us.  The more we perceive authority, the less authentic we will be.  And the more authority exerts itself, the less authentic we will be.

  • Are you authentic with people at church?  Does your answer differ by person?  Why or why not?  Does it differ by role?  Why or why not?
  • Is authenticity important or is it a fad?  Defend your answer.
  • Do leaders need to be authentic to be effective or can they portray the organization’s values even when those values differ from their own?  Does this erode trust?  Can you tell when this happens?