A few years ago my colleague Neela was coaching a man, Luis, who was preparing a big promotion speech to present to the senior leaders at his company. They worked for a couple of months, and Neela told me Luis was doing a great job—knowledgable, capable, prepared. But when he did a dry run of the talk for people in his office, he reported back to Neela that they were uncomfortable with the story he told about his family.
Luis is from Central America, and his family sacrificed a lot for him to come to the US for an education and to build his adult life. Neela told me that when he speaks about them, he gets choked up. He didn’t break down in tears, but he was clearly emotional. Everyone who does the promotion presentation mentions their families; not everyone is as moved by thinking of their families as Luis is. But that is authentic to Luis.
I think of Luis when I hear leaders talk about authenticity. “Authenticity” has been a buzzword in business circles for the last ten years or so; we hear about “authentic leadership,” “showing up with authenticity,” “your authentic voice,” and the list goes on.
What we don’t hear about is what is really meant by authenticity, and more importantly, who gets to decide what it is when they see it. Authenticity seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
Authenticity is a Goldilocks quality—we need just enough, not too much or too little. Too little, and we seem cold and robotic. Too much, and we’re well, too much. The Luis story seems to confirm this.
As our world gets both bigger and smaller, as we get to work and live with people who are more different from us than our grandparents could have imagined, we have an opportunity to learn what authenticity really is. As we show up at work in positions of leadership and of followership, we can champion the authenticity of people who aren’t like us. We can ask, “Why does it matter if Luis gets choked up? Doesn’t that show us more about who he is, the connection he has to his family and his values? Doesn’t that make him an even better candidate?”
We need more men like Luis at the top levels of our organizations, not fewer. Let true authenticity take hold; let people show up at work with more of our whole selves. We will all reap the benefits.