I’m writing a series of longer pieces, exploring my new Map of the Social Age for 2019: ‘Authenticity’ is a key location in this new landscape, representing, for many, a foundation of Social Leadership, and a central mechanism of engagement. We ‘believe’ in authentic leaders in a way that goes beyond pure contractual bonds. Authenticity forms the roots of that that engagement, spreading deep into our reputation networks. To understand the importance of Authenticity in Social Leadership is to understand that not all power is claimed: much is imbued.
Authenticity is an imposed property: you can cut someone in half and it won’t say ‘authentic’ in the middle. It’s not measurable like height, or weight, and you cannot wear it like a coat. In some ways, it’s like beauty: others can perceive it in you, and no matter how much you aspire to it, you cannot buy it in a bottle.
The easiest type of authenticity to understand is that which is based in experience: if we are talking about mountaineering, and you have climbed Everest, then your perspective, your viewpoint, is more authentic than mine. I may have watched a movie, and read books, but i have not lived it. I may even know more facts than you: i could tell you what the rocks are made of, i could give you the height in inches, and i could tell you how many steps it takes, on average, to climb it, but unless i have actually put my feet on the ground that ten thousand times, my story is not authentic.
Authenticity is therefore imbued, experiential, and discretionary: you may have climbed Everest, but if i do not ‘believe’ in you in some way, i still may not count your viewpoint as authentic.
It’s not just individuals who can be deemed to be Authentic though: it’s a quality that we place onto Organisations as well. But in the same spirit, it’s something imbued, not bought, or demanded. And if we have it, it really counts.
In the context of Social Leadership, it’s easy to see why Authenticity is important: when we move beyond our formal bonds, when we move outside of the hierarchy, then all that is left is trust, reputation, pride, and the other social forces of connection, and Authenticity may act as something of a catalyst for all of these.
Authenticity is often a story of simplicity: an ‘authentic’ meal would often be a simple one, not heavily processed. A craftsman making a chair by hand may be seen as ‘authentic’ in their labouring, whilst a factory in Cambodia manufacturing clothes at international scales may not be. At least, may not be from a context of the consumer in the UK. Indeed, if the trendy brand that designs those clothes is discovered to be utilising child labour, any authenticity they have bought may be squandered. So it’s a currency, certainly, but not one that is easily traded beyond grounded experience.
We could view Authenticity is an element of resilience, in the sense that, when we have it, we can weather a storm more easily: we can be authentic, and fail, and yet be carried to safety by an engaged community. We may be forgiven if we are authentic, even if we make poor decisions. But if we are inauthentic, we may be judged harshly.
From a practical perspective, there are two things to consider: how we, as individual Social Leaders, can be authentic, even when Organisational pollution gets in the way, and secondly, how we can ensure that our Organisations themselves act with Authenticity, internally to their employees, and outwardly, into the community they exist within.
The term ‘Organisational Pollution’ is one that i first used to describe the factors that inveigle their way between ‘intention’ and ‘action’, e.g. i ‘intend’ to act fairly, but in the execution, in the action that i take, directed in part by the Organisation, i act in ways that are less than fair (e.g. i don’t give you a 0.5% pay rise because my total budget for pay rises is capped, and so i award it elsewhere: i may have intended to, but action beyond my control prevented me, so my action is unfair as measured against my intention).
Of course, much of this is contextual: i may believe that i am acting with Authenticity towards you, and you may believe that i am not. And hence your view of my leadership is that it’s not authentic. Indeed, i suspect that in almost every case, this is true. The world is not full of people who try to act without authenticity, and yet not everyone is deemed to be authentic.
Authenticity is also contextual in another, more traditional, sense, in that our experience based Authenticity only counts in context: e.g. if we are discussing the gender pay gap, your experience climbing Everest is not really that relevant. So contextually, you are inauthentic.
From an Organisational perspective, we must create opportunities of authentic engagement: this may include things such as facing our own failure, sharing weakness and uncertainty, as well as conviction and strength, listening more than talking, and engaging with honesty in issues that are most significant into our work, and local, communities.
One of the reasons that i’ve included Authenticity as one of the key aspects for this year is because of the more recent work i’ve been doing on Dominant Narratives, and the amplification of failure. If we are deemed to be inauthentic, the consequence may not simply be local: it may be aggregated, and amplified, to be global. For that reason alone, understanding the importance and mechanisms of Authenticity, it’s roots in experience and action, and an active approach to building and maintaining it, for both individual Social Leaders, and engaged Organisations, is important.
What you need to know:
- ‘Authenticity’ is valuable, intangible, contextual, and imbued upon us by others.
- We cannot demand it, nor insulate against it’s loss.
- Consequence of losing it may be aggregated and amplified at scale.
What you need to do:
- Consider the roots of your own Authenticity: what action do you take that grows it, and what erodes it?
- Consider if you can create conditions, circumstances, for people to engage in ways that permit them to engage with Authenticity?
- Look specifically at the action of your Organisation into it’s local (and globally local) community: ground yourself in the communities that you serve