Friday, February 4, 2011

Spare Us the Authenticity

Everyone but me believes in authenticity. With very few exceptions most people have jumped on the authenticity bandwagon. It’s a culture thing, and we all want to belong to the culture.

In some ways it makes sense. We want to be real, not fake. We want to be open and honest about our feelings, not closed off and repressed.

We have been sold on authenticity because we have been led to believe that anything else is a lie.

Authenticity feels like a good idea, until you start reflecting that civility-- a term that has recently received much lip service-- is the polar opposite of authenticity.

As often happens, we have not given enough thought to the concept. Being true to what you have inside tends to push you toward being anti-social.

It’s bad enough that authenticity has infected everyday relationships. Now, if Deborah Gruenfeld and Lauren Zander are correct, we even want our leaders to be authentic, like Jack Welch. Link here.

With one possible exception, none of you is Jack Welch. If you imitate the Jack Welch leadership style, you will, by definition, be inauthentic. Adopting a Jack Welch persona will make look like a fake... unless you really are Jack Welch.

But nothing would prevent you from living your life according to the Jack Welch formula for authenticity: give it to them straight from the gut. If you want a copy, click on this link: Jack: Straight from the Gut

Whatever the philosophers mean by authenticity, the Welch formula captures its meaning with perfect clarity. It is totally high concept.

The trouble is: when something really comes straight from the gut, that means, literally speaking, that you are regurgitating.

You might feel like it’s a necessary purge of negativity, but most people, when they see it coming at them, will be trying to get out of the way.

No one embraces someone who is giving it to them straight from the gut.

I am not advising anyone to ignore whatever rumblings they feel in their digestive tract. After all, those queasy feelings may be telling you that you are in danger or in love.

But you ought to filter your gut’s impulse through your brain. You should weigh it with your best judgment, formulate it in human language, and communicate it persuasively and tactfully to another human being.

Regardless of how many business leaders have taken Jack Welch’s advice to heart, it is bad advice. It did not create the authenticity vogue, which originated with existential philosophy decades ago, but it has helped create a business culture where, as Gruenfeld and Zander point out, authenticity has come to be a justification for bad behavior.

Gruenfeld and Zander believe that you should not try to be authentic, because your true self might be a jerk or boor.What if your true feelings will be repulsive to another human being? I would go so far as to say that some of the emotions that pass through your gut, and other parts of your anatomy, during a business day will get you in serious trouble if you express them openly and authentically.

If you insist that your behavior be authentic, you will tend to be rude, tactless, and inconsiderate. Authenticity will absolve you of the effort required to show consideration for everyone else‘s feelings.

And how can you lead or even connect with another human being if you are so self-involved that you are hard at work on purging the contents of your gut.

Being inconsiderate toward your staff is not the way to motivate them. It is also not a good way to make friends or to influence people.

In truth, it is more natural, more normal, and certainly more adult to gear your expressions to your listeners.

People who want to make authenticity their policy will probably make it a point to display their more obnoxious characteristics in public. But why do we all think that your worst is your true self, while your best is a sham persona?

Leadership does not involve putting on a mask that will make you look like a leader. Effective leadership is seen in how well your staff is working, in how the company functions, not in how you present yourself.

Paradoxically, this does not mean that you should be someone other than yourself.

Authenticity is a misleading ideal because it defines you merely as an autonomous bundle of unexpressed emotions. It completely ignores your social being.

And, since all human beings live in society, the picture of the autonomous, authentic individual is a mere philosopher’s fiction.

True enough, sometimes you act like a jerk: you might be hypercritical and judgmental, querulous or irascible, pusillanimous or foolhardy, modest or flamboyant.

But, these are personality traits; they are more theatrical than real; they are not who you really are.

But then, what does it mean to say that you should be who you really are?

Happily enough, who you are as a social being is anything but mysterious. It involves the most obvious facts that others know about you.

This is going to feel somewhat self-evident. Yet, many of the primary characteristics that make you who you really are have recently run afoul of political correctness.

Simply put, I am thinking about the traits that define you as a human being in society. The people who are peddling authenticity have been trying to persuade us that they are trivial, irrelevant, prejudicial, and of less import than the deep feelings rising from your intestinal tract.

For example, you are a man or a woman. Despite the fact that most people have been bullied into removing gender references from their vocabulary, the basic fact of gender remains. You cannot be both a man and a woman and you cannot be neither.

If you are a man, you should not be pretending to get in touch with your feminine side. Most women will understand that you are faking it. You would do best not to work with those who don’t.

If a man gets in touch with his feminine side, other men will deride his pretension.

No man can lead effectively if he is adopting a feminine persona. Not because a woman cannot exercise leadership, but because no one is going to follow the lead of someone who does not know who he is.

Outside of the therapy world, most male leaders do not try to act like women. Yet, women are often advised that they must be more manly if they are to function effectively as leaders.

Here the same principle applies. A woman cannot command respect for being something that she is not. If she pretends to be another Jack Welch, she is not going to fool anyone. By seeming to be uncomfortable in her skin she will be undermining her own authority and credibility.

When it comes to everyday life, a man should not pretend to know what it feels like to be a woman or to have experiences that are specific to women. It is invasive and intrusive, a failure to respect a woman’s privacy.

Obviously, the same rule applies to women who might be tempted to get in touch with their more virile side, or to pretend that they know what it feels like to be a man.

Those who make a fetish out of empathy seem to believe that we can all feel each other‘s pain. In fact, we cannot, and it is insulting to pretend otherwise.

Of course, there’s more to who you really are than your gender. There’s also your age. You are your age and you should always act it.

As we know, this is easier said than done.

Some businesses value a young, vibrant look, and our culture seems to worship at the altar of youthful inexperience.

Granted, it is probably easier to find love and romance if you can highlight your more youthful qualities.

Yet, if you are going to exercise leadership, you do yourself no favor by pretending to be much younger than you are. We associate age with experience, and we all look up to leaders who have more experience and who look like they have earned their way to the top, a leader who affects an appearance of youthfulness is not going to command respect. Looking and acting your age means that you are comfortable with your leadership position.

Sorry to have to say it, but one way to look your age is to forgo cosmetic surgery procedures. These do not just erase your wrinkles; they freeze your face to the point where it no longer expresses anything resembling a human feeling.

As for the larger issues, if you are an older person leading a group of younger people, you should not pretend to be just like them. In your demeanor and your attitude you should express the grace that comes from experience and the generosity that shows your confidence in their ability.

If you are older, you should know that leadership involves being the kind of person that someone would want to emulate.

If we are thinking seriously about the topic of leadership, gender and age are just the beginning. How you function as a leader will involve where you came from: which country, which region, which community.

You will also be known by the schools you attended and by the degrees and accreditations you possess.

You will also be seen differently depending on whether you are elevated from inside or outside of the company, whether you got your start in sales, marketing, accounting, legal, or human resources.

If you got the job because your father owns the company, that will also affect your ability to lead.

These different aspects of who you really are weigh more heavily than whether or not you are a jerk or a drama queen.

If you acknowledge their importance and their permanence, you can effectively manage them. If you ignore them because you are obsessing about being your authentically nasty self, you will be mismanaging them

Last, but not least, many of the most important parts of who you are involve your character. Are you trustworthy, reliable, responsible, and loyal?

These are far more important for social interaction than your ability to give it to people straight from the gut.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Uuuuuhhhhh....

No one embraces someone who is giving it to them straight from the gut. -- Stuart Schneiderman

When was the last time you watched THIS?

Nothing from the 'gut'? Heh....

Combat is VERY 'visceral'.


[Accuracy is relative: most combat shooting standards will be more dependent on "pucker factor" than the inherent accuracy of the gun. -- Marine Corps Rules for Gunfighting]

P.S. Another orifice relating to 'guts'. And quite accurate when you get 'into it'.