By Dr Ian Ashman, Director, Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE), University of Central Lancashire.
There seems to be a lot of talk these days about authenticity and “being authentic”, with particular traction gained in the realms of politics and management. In an era that is characterised by feelings of uncertainty and a lack of trust in “the establishment”, there are suggestions that the authentic leader, whether politician or business person, is the antidote — a paragon of virtue with faultless technical ability and boundless charisma. In the rush to identify such individuals, nobody questions whether the notion of authenticity really means anything in this context.
In the political sphere we find that “authenticity” has considerable currency. It has been argued by eminent academics that it was Barak Obama’s authenticity that won him the US presidency and now, on the opposing end of the political spectrum, it is Donald Trump’s straight-talking, authentic personality that has gained him the Republican nomination. During the EU Referendum in the UK, the “intellectual establishment” was often portrayed as dishonest and inauthentic, whereas politicians from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbin were popular because they were seen as genuine and relatable, independent of their particular ideologies.
However, according to Jennifer Szalai writing recently in the New York Times, we should be sceptical:
“We’re so accustomed to politicians finely honing their ‘authentic personas’ that anything smacking of relatability is probably too relatable to be true.”
It is ironic that a demonstrably competent career politician like Hillary Clinton is argued to have an “authenticity problem”.
In the business and management sphere the watchwords are “authentic leadership”. Populist and academic writers claim to draw on Greek philosophy to exclaim the desirability of authentic leadership and they imbue it with a moral dimension — characterised by the oft cited phrase “to thine own self be true“ (not Greek but a line from Hamlet!). In other words, they take the conventional meaning of “authentic”, as true and genuine, such as we might consider an antique painting, and apply the same concept to human beings — but does that really make sense?
Existentialist philosophy, and particularly the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, has perhaps more to say about authenticity than the Greeks ever did and it raises questions about prevailing thinking. In his Notebooks for an Ethics, written during the war, Sartre reflects on the apparent oxymoron of honing authenticity pointed out by Szalai. He says:
“If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake then you are no longer authentic.”
What Sartre argues is that the ambition to be authentic is inauthentic because we are never a fixed entity. Our situations change and we change with them, so, to coin a phrase, as humans, we are in a constant state of becoming. There is no fixed individual self to know or to be true or honest to.
Jacob Golomb explains neatly what authenticity means to an existentialist:
“The notions of honesty and sincerity can be defined as … a congruence between one’s behaviour and one’s innermost essence. Authenticity, however, is not in keeping with such a definition. Not only does it deny any rigid a priori essence but it also rejects any compliance with a rigid set of standards. Authenticity … is a pathos of incessant change as opposed to a passive subordination to one particular ethic.”
The English word “authenticity”, interestingly, comes from the Greek authentes, which is derived from autos meaning “self” and hentes meaning “doer”. Literally, “authenticity” prescribes doing it yourself — making it up as you go along — but crucially, from an existentialist perspective, taking responsibility for the consequences. In another book called Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre states that:
“Authenticity … consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate.”
The authentic leader, if there is such a thing, doesn’t strive for authenticity but they do take responsibility for their actions. If they do that and are doing their best we shouldn’t ask for any more.