The Elements of Authenticity

A non-academic look at what the academic world says about authenticity

Let’s be real (let’s be authentic?).

“Authenticity” has become a buzzword. Social media is all about “being real” and “real talk” – ironically, since we now live in a world where people can pay to take selfies in a private jet that never leaves the ground. “You do you,” “Tell it like it is,” and the evergreen “follow your heart” pervade pop culture.

It’s made its way to the business world with LinkedIn covered in talk of Authenticity and its first cousin Empathy. In healthcare, authenticity has been re-surfaced as a necessary component of a revived and revamped healthcare system that needs to get the personal touch back into the embodied practice of medicine.

That’s all very good. But like any important issue, it can be twisted and hijacked, or just used lazily. Again, we point to the irony of seeing authenticity twisted and made inauthentic.

To get past the jargon and buzziness, we took a step back and went to the academic literature to understand what, exactly, “authenticity” means. How is this admittedly soft characteristic defined in technical terms, how is it applied and what are its effects on organizations?

How is it defined?

The definition of authenticity has evolved in the past couple of decades. Look around and you’ll see a lot of references to Polonius in Hamlet saying, “To thine own self be true.” And that’s basically it. Being authentic is being yourself.

It sounds great until the inconvenient examples start cropping up. Too many dictators and criminals were true to themselves but, horrifically, their “self” was evil. So clearly, there needs to be a moral component added to Shakespeare’s idea.

Which brings us to the recent refinement of authenticity in the formal concept of Authentic Leadership.

Leadership and a moral model of authenticity

Much of what the business and leadership worlds think about practical applications in authentic leadership comes from work started in the early 2000s by Bruce Avolio, a management professor and leadership researcher. Avolio codified authentic leadership into four components:

  1. Self-awareness. This is the “know thyself” part. How does one understand the world, how does one obtain and give value, what are one’s personal characteristics (good and bad)?

  2. Internalized moral perspective. Not just having a set of values, but intentionally living up to them. This is important because one’s moral perspective could be different than that of society or a group. As a result, they can withstand external pressure. The risk is that those morals aren’t just different, but bad. Thus, the new requirement that authentic leaders hold ethical values and pursue them.

  3. Balanced processing of information. This simply means reviewing all information in an unbiased way. It’s looking for facts, regardless of whether they support the preconceived ideas. It’s accepting critical feedback. It’s making decisions that are good for the group regardless of whether they’re good for the leader.

  4. Relational Transparency. This is the idea that you don’t stop at knowing yourself – you present that true self to the people around you. Your outward actions are consistent with your internal values and you don’t try to obfuscate or manipulate for personal gain. It also means presenting as much information as appropriate and possible for a given situation to help people can understand your decision and get behind it.

What are the benefits of authentic leadership?

We’ve all heard of or worked in toxic environments where lack of communication (at best) or dishonesty (at worst) on the part of leadership led to failed initiatives, poor morale, staff turnover and missed milestones.

Authentic leadership takes an organization in the opposite direction.

Numerous studies have found that authentic leadership increases job satisfaction and confidence in their leader among employees; builds team morale, rapport and effectiveness; boosts the commitment of individual employees to the organization and inspires individuals to give extra effort in their work.

One of the more interesting pieces within that list is the increased team effectiveness when working under an authentic leader. It’s a true trickle-down effect, and the implication is that a CEO doesn’t have to be in the room for the benefits of his or her attitude to positively impact team dynamics. That is a profound lesson for teams and organizations of all types.

How does that work? There’s a whole raft of physiological reasons, according to behavior and body language expert Scott Rouse. When a leader is authentic – relaxed, comfortable, natural – the people around her match and mirror her. There are also biochemical effects, releasing brain chemicals that help people relax and put them in a better mood.

But at a simple, high level, people work better under authentic leaders because “we want to be like people we like,” said Rouse.

A note about personality and change

If we take everything above exactly as presented, we’re left with a problem. In a 2014 article, radiologists Richard Gunderman and Mario Maas pointed out that we’ll never change and grow if we always accept ourselves just as we are “at the moment.” We must push ourselves to be better which inherently includes some discomfort because we’re acting like something we’re not (yet).

Our sources echoed this idea. While some characteristics are innate, anyone can learn to be authentic. It does take grit to make the hard decision to be real with ourselves and the people around us. The key, say Gunderman and Maas, is to not pretend to be something – “to copy someone else, or to fulfil someone else’s expectations.” And it’s certainly not about going through the motions because LinkedIn told us authenticity is the way to get promoted. It’s about being authentic because that’s what will help our team, our organizations, and ourselves succeed – and do good – while building success.

About the Author /

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As Jarrard Inc's Content Marketing Manager, David Shifrin specializes in curating ideas and making technical concepts accessible to broad audiences, helping thought leaders move past jargon to present core messages in a meaningful way. He received his PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology from Vanderbilt University.