How to be Authentic

Authenticity is a highly desirable quality in today’s world, especially among leaders. It’s not something you can fake and you know it when you see it

Authenticity is a highly desirable quality in today’s world, especially among leaders. It’s not something you can fake and you know it when you see it. Authentic people seem to radiate a special kind of power and it’s difficult to find any gaps in who they are and how they show up. At the same time, authenticity is elusive. What is authenticity? And how does one become authentic? 

According to a 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones on “Managing Authenticity”, they write about how authenticity is a trait that others attribute to you. They argue that authenticity is not an innate quality but rather comes when your behaviors align with your values. In other words, when people can see that you “walk your talk” and are consistent across scenarios, you are an authentic person. At the same time, they propose that authenticity is like being a chameleon, “adapting to the demands of the people and situations they face”. 

But I think we could explore this a little deeper and ask what makes a person truly authentic, regardless if others attribute this character trait to you. The question of what makes an authentic person goes right to the heart of the question, what is self? How can we be an authentic self if who we are is constantly shifting? Most of us have a more or less consistent personality and by the time we’re in our late 30’s we feel like we know who we are. When we show up in different scenarios people can expect the same person, but what if authenticity is beyond our consistent personality? Our personalities are based on constantly fluctuating moods, states of mind, and different parts of ourselves. We might be one way with co-workers but when we’re with our partner, our inner 5 year old comes out. 

We can not quite pin down our authentic self because we are constantly shifting and different parts of yourself take over depending on what’s needed, or if we’re triggered, we are hijacked by our nervous system and then all bets are off. This is why we can often finish a day and feel regretful about certain things we said or how we acted in a situation, we don’t really feel like our behaviors are a reflection of who we really are, our authentic self. So the barometer for whether or not we have been authentic is really internal but is also in the context of how we relate to others. 

In Tibetan, the word for authentic presence is “wangthang” and comes from the merit we accumulate in our actions. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describes wangthang or authentic presence as “a field of power…a quality of genuine presence that grows from intimacy with virtue”. You gain merit through virtuous behaviors, such as helping others, deeply listening, and being present. In other words, you can’t fake authentic presence, it accumulates over time and is reflected in your being. Authenticity is less about who you are and more about how you show up. An authentic person carries a certain weight, when they walk into a room you can feel it and when they have something to say, you listen. 

So what is the process of becoming a more authentic person? Well, according to the same Tibetan Buddhist teachings, you become authentic when you become more selfless. You become more oriented towards a larger space, a bigger mind. Your actions are less based on your personality-which is shifty-and more based on a deeper sense of being present to what is. This sort of presence takes discipline and awareness. The discipline is about setting aside your’s and other’s preferences and opinions and being available to what’s needed. The awareness is about holding the bigger picture, both internally and externally. An authentic person does not become more of themselves, a solid person who “is authentic”;  rather, an authentic person aligns themselves with and is guided by qualities that help others and the situation as a whole. This takes both discipline and awareness.  

A manager I work with has had to respond to the changing dynamics brought on by the Covid pandemic. His direct reports all have different needs related to their risk of exposure and schedules. His program has also experienced an increase in demand and variables. How does he respond to this ever-changing reality with authenticity? If he responds from the place of personality, he is going to be blown around by moods and his fixed mind. He may think things should go one way, but reality is telling him a different story. To have discipline he must set aside the chatter and deeply listen to what’s arising, both from his intuition, from others and the environment. He must hold a ‘big mind’ by being present to his bodily sensations, his sense perceptions and others. When we can hold both our internal experience without fixation and respond to what’s arising in an appropriate and direct way, we are being authentic. 

This may seem like a lot to hold, but ironically, when we are being authentic things become less complicated. We can tune into the simplicity of each moment by being fully present. Ironically we become more consistent when we are aligned with these inner principles, or virtue, and what guides us. We are driven less by our personality and more by what’s needed. Perhaps this is what Goffee and Jones were talking about when they described authenticity as being like a chameleon. You adapt to what’s needed but you still hold your authentic self-that is, ‘a quality of genuine presence’. In this way, authenticity becomes more of a practice and path than a solid, fixed quality. Authenticity is not only a desired quality in leaders, but a much needed quality in today’s ever-changing world. 

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