The authenticity hijack

red and blue hot air balloon floating on air on body of water during night time
Photo by Bess Hamiti on

By choosing integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection.  It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.”

Parker Palmer

I started writing this a couple of years ago.  During that time, I’ve moved further towards being “whole and undivided”.  I’ve been training, learning, stretching, letting go, through my work as a Thinking Environment® practitioner.  So simple yet so full of complexity.  Like a tardis; like a human – it’s bigger on the inside.

“Bring your whole self to work” “Authentic Leadership”.  It always with makes me a bit …..I don’t know, wriggly. Why?

A coachee once talked a lot about “being authentic”, and when others weren’t (authentic) how it irritated/annoyed him.  He was unable to articulate with any specificity what he meant by authentic.  What did he mean I wondered?  Where he got to was that he had some assumptions, values about being a good and kind human being which boiled down to the fact that when people said one thing and did another, that was the cause of the irritation, the rub, the grit.

I wonder about this whole self to work, this authenticity.   I wonder too why I experience some discomfort.  Is there something in me that finds it hard?  Sometimes I have found it hard to be ME.  To be my complete self.  Frightened perhaps of rejection, looking foolish, of not being loved.  Not aware of what was in front of me. In me.  Hiding, lurking.  Buried.    I have delayered quite a bit of sticky stuff that wasn’t mine, in pursuit of being me.  Some of it was really stuck, superglued with assumptions.

I have discovered being me seems to invite others to be them.

I remember reading an article many years ago, an HBR piece about authentic leadership. I remember thinking “yes, that’s IT!”  I haven’t read many leadership models, articles, theories that I don’t agree with. Leadership development in abundance.  And yet……

“Be your authentic you”,” bring your whole self to work” (what is the psychological contract that comes with that? Do you want my story, my grief, my history?  What are my choices?).  We have a multi billion pound industry; and yet…..having done some research with one of my own clients and the efficacy of 360 appraisal; one of the main conclusions was that if an individual is up for self-development, they will get benefit. They’ll find inspiration everywhere, and they’ll love any programme they attend.    If they aren’t, they won’t.  If they’re expected to disclose as opposed offering to share, they’ll actually close up, retreat further.

What are we really asking of people when we ask them to bring their whole selves to work/ to be authentic? It must be fuelled with good intentions but  I think as an employee I might resent that expectation.  I think there is a potential for us to be projecting our own interpretation into this. (Isn’t that how we do everything?)

Perhaps I dislike my job and fantasise about another reality but I can still function well enough.  “Don’t ask any more of me”.  Met plenty of those, maybe once or twice, it’s been me.  Whilst I may think how much more fulfilment life offers if you are in the present, sharing freely,  do I have any right to ask more of you than you are prepared to show, reveal, offer?

It is my assumption that when we are being treated well, we are more likely to be whole, undivided, and perhaps live with a dream that could be realised – rather than escape into a fantasy. And that means if we are undivided with our energy and attention, we will probably more likely to feel whole, complete. Like ourselves.  Real. Seen. Whole.  That’s perhaps when people experience our authenticity. So what do we do about the “other?” who isn’t treating us well, over whom we have no power, and who has power over us?

Arnold Blesser says that change happens “when we become who we are as opposed to try to become who we are not”.

For me to bring my whole self to work; I don’t think you need to “know” anything about me.  Maybe I am assuming that is what is expected.  I may not say everything I am thinking and feeling but I am often aware of what I am thinking and feeling so that my contribution doesn’t create a need to respond to my needs.   Put us all together in a group and we create enough dysfunction already without my stuff going into the mix.  (Can I prevent that?).  I think the Thinking Environment evolves that further through offering others complete, utter, fascinated attention and the self becomes out of the mix in service of others thinking for themselves.  I need to be there, but not necessarily to be saying anything.  A coachee once said to me “I know what you’re going to ask me” (a specific TE question)  “but I need to hear you say it. “

Who and how I am is as much my work (more perhaps?) as what I know, and how I go about working with many different organisations and people.  Sometimes, the energy in an organisation reverberates and I don’t feel I can be who I am, and if I can’t be me, I can get a bit awkward, clunky. I once worked with an organisation where I caused an outcry “you can’t talk about that” when I talked about ethics in relation to coaching.  I wondered what that meant about the culture; the work I was doing.  Where did that come from? How could I, how could anyone be themselves if there was such vibration around one word.  I couldn’t be myself there.   They didn’t want what they said ” a more coaching and listening culture”.  Consultancy as another form of command and control. Not me.

I saw something recently about authenticity that made it OK through being authentic to dismiss or discount someone else in service of speaking truth.  So yes, that is being authentic. Yet there is something that bothers me; all tools, data, models, definitions can be distorted, manipulated to suit the narcissist, the power hungry, the status driven – the neediest of the needy can wrap anything around their own ego to suit themselves/ourselves.

If we think about integrity – being whole and undivided and operating with a moral framework  – then when we are acting with integrity, then our decisions are going to be made with a sense of our self, a sense of completeness.

Don’t tell me to be authentic.  Create space for me to discover for myself who I am.  I’ll make the choice.

Integrity – whole, undivided, knowing what I stand for.  Me.