2 min read

The Problem with Authentic Leadership

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Authenticity is all the rage right now. Companies all over the world are proudly proclaiming how inclusive they are: "bring your whole self to work!" they're shouting, "you can be yourself here!"

Their websites say one thing, but our Wednesday Wonder results from earlier in the year told a slightly more nuanced story.

While most of you were on the more authentic end of the spectrum, there was still some uncertainty about being truly real... and some unresolved questions.

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Authenticity is a privilege

One of those questions is around power and privilege. It's one thing to admit the trashy shows you watched on TV, or your weird penchant for house plants. It's quite another to discuss your polygamous marriage, upcoming transgender top surgery or nihilistic political beliefs.

Authenticity in polite society still has some fairly clear boundaries, and they're mostly ones that support dominant ideas about people and society - and by extension: culture, race, gender, sexuality, power and class.

This Ted Talk by Jodie-Ann Byre does a better job than I can of laying some of this queasiness bare, confronting how embedded and systemic racism makes true workplace authenticity a rarity for women of colour. For people who are used to 'passing' as something more socially acceptable, authenticity claims are little more than a reminder that they don't truly fit the mould.

Authenticity requires power

Taking another look at those Wednesday Wonder results with this lens exposes some interesting findings. The most common things we're holding back on are our true opinions about decisions and conditions in the workplace. We didn't mind baring our personality quirks, but we weren't going to make career limiting comments - especially when we didn't hold the power.

I've been thinking about this in relation to my work and life too. It's relatively easy for me to be proudly bold and authentic, at least these days. I'm self employed, I have a public platform, and I'm not living hand to mouth, hoping to stay on the good side of my boss for when my kids are off sick or I need overtime to cover an unexpected bill. If I was, I'd be keeping my head down and my grumbles to myself.

True authenticity needs space for unheard voices

Without power, we cannot be truly authentic. When the potential costs of exposing some parts of your life are too high, or the fallout from challenging decisions at work is too risky, everybody loses.

We collectively need to hear these voices. Firstly, these are often the voices most affected by change and decisions. Secondly, and by extension, these are often the voices with the fresh perspectives that challenge the status quo.

How do we make space for - and elevate - the voices and opinions we aren't hearing?

How do we make it safe, necessary and celebrated to be honest about who we are and what we think?

I don't have the answers here, but I'm increasingly confident that authenticity and expression cannot be separated from conversations around inclusion and equality.

Food for thought.