Authenticity: Be mindful.

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Whenever elections come up in democratic countries the question of the “authenticity” of political leaders is widely debated. In this context “authenticity” refers primarily to the credibility and honesty of the candidates. These attributes are important. Politics is often seen as show business with the politicians on the stage. They seem to be willing to embrace everybody with whatever promise seems appropriate just to get the vote. Authenticity points to the natural core of personality. It guarantees that promises are kept and decisions will follow the principles laid out in the unknown waters of the future.        
 
Three factors indicate that authenticity may become even more important also for management in the future. First, the picture of company leaders is nowadays more complete and realistic. Rare and orchestrated appearances have always helped to keep some mystic. Today in drilling interviews watched by millions live many leaders show that they do not only sweat like everybody. In addition, they often seem unaware of what should have been important, and convince neither with their knowledge nor in their argumentation. Secondly, they are often flanked by lawyers. This picture reminds unintentionally of facts already widely discussed in the news anyway: Some members of the cream of the elite found a new home in prison, await trial, or are under investigation. The indirect effect is even more important than the direct one: These black sheep raise doubts also in the quality of judgment by their peers. Obviously the white sheep have problems to spot the black in time. Third, public and employees read not only about private matters of celebrities and politicians anymore. Top executives have become celebrities themselves. Some against their will, others search the stage of the public as a marketing instrument for their products and, a bit, for themselves.
 
Increased transparency is evident for top level management but goes down the line. This is primarily due to the social media. They have changed not only the way individuals present themselves, but also how they are presented and discussed. In addition, private and public spheres have not merged, but are more difficult to distinguish than ten years ago. Information out of any sphere can leak into anonymous forums and websites for whistleblowers. The spread of rumors was limited until some years ago, now they can be posted widely on websites exact for this purpose. What may become subject of a public hearing for a CEO, may be discussed on a smaller scale in the social media when it comes to middle management.
 
On this background authenticity is also embraced by leaders themselves. Let’s be honest: It is fairly stressful to behave “impeccable” around the clock, maybe it is even impossible. Fortunately for them, authenticity seems also to be close to the opposite of charismatic. While charismatic leadership has been very popular in the management literature and training sector, most people felt that it was a difficult concept from the beginning. One may polish it a little to bring it out, but essentially charisma (“Gods’ blessing”) is a trait: You either have it or you don’t. For many it constitutes a demand characteristic to become somebody they just not are. In a counter movement authenticity, in contrast, brings liberation and freedom. It is something everybody seems to have and implies allowances for human weakness.
 
The problem of authenticity, however, is that it refers to something many psychologists doubt it even exists: the true nature of a personality. Individuals change over time, evidently play or are forced into roles, have private and public selves. In addition, situations differ over the lifespan and can sometimes be so forceful that individual differences get lost in the stress imposed. Individuals do not only what they want to do, but also what they are expected or forced to do. Whatever the true nature of a personality may be, it often just cannot show up for others and is also hard to define for oneself. 
 
It is neither possible nor necessary to clarify this issue to become authentic because there is certainly one dimension all individuals share and which can serve as its basis. This dimension is self-reflection. Pragmatically it is not important if one calls it different selves or just perspectives, but individuals have the ability to look onto themselves from various angles. Thereby they can compare what they have done with what they wanted, how other people would have acted, which ethical norms were met or missed. Most feedback at work is given internally out of comparisons between what is achieved against what should be achieved. Eminent US-American psychologist Ellen Langer teaching at Harvard University coined the term “mindfulness” twenty years ago for the careful reflection of the actual behavior out of many perspectives.
 
Mindful self-reflection can serve as a sharp tool to become authentic because it addresses a major problem in human action, the conflict between automaticity and awareness. Most of our activities depend on routines and schemata. They are formed by one of the most valuable processes in human thinking, categorization. Indeed, getting into the adult world means learning to classify events, persons, and experiences. From our mental models down to motoric patterns we have learned over many years how to react on stimuli in a differentiated way. These many little categorical drawers in our brain and senses make life easier and allow fast reactions. We could not live without them. But they are also a major handicap. With ease and speed things get displaced, and schematic reactions may not really be appropriate.
 
The older we become, the more we rest on our system of routines and the term “age” does not refer to biological age alone here but to repeated experiences in general. As long as nothing indicates a serious mistake, we tend to repeat, redo, and rethink things in the way which seems to have proved successful in the past – until it really does not work out. Routines let us overlook small signals, ignore minor changes in feedback, and prevent us to look more sharply at problems which appear known in their surface structures.
 
With regard to thinking self-reflection prevents routines to become rigidities. Of course it helps also when it comes to actually acting and reacting. With a little thinking before reacting the result might be different especially when it comes to falling into temper traps. To slowly count up to ten before acting out is a good advice not only for children. To think of matters from the end is certainly another.
 
There is, of course, a downside to self-reflection. It needs time and is much better done from the outside of a situation than being inside. Within a situational frame  automatic reactions have to be overridden which is often difficult or in a given timeframe impossible. In consequence, self-reflection becomes often hindsight with all its excuses and self-serving arguments when something has gone wrong. There is also the danger of getting lost in thought. Therefore, also self-reflection should be employed in a mindful manner. This can be done by reserving shorter and longer time slots during the week for a step back from the daily hassle to look at it.
 
If this does not happen and self-reflection acts as a guide and tool for the present and the future, it will naturally display many attributes decisive in leadership. Insight is a natural ingredient and will be a accompanied by a balanced and reasoned risk taking, consideration for other opinions, and a more stress-resistant emotional state. In addition, mistakes out of wrongly applied routines can be avoided or will be dealt with timely in an appropriate manner. Some will say a mindful leader lacks some enthusiasm - and they are right. But enthusiasm has a steep and fast trajectory also on its downside and lifts confidence often to a level which will be labeled failed over-confidence later.
 
Evidently the self-reflective search for authenticity can give charisma. It is a long row of leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama who built on this principle. The good thing of this kind of leaders is that they leave a real legacy. Like others they made sometimes even tragic mistakes and errors on their way, but they did not get lost. Instead they worked on themselves and bettered the world.  A world, which was and still is full of enthusiastic charismatic leaders we would like just to forget.
 
Therefore, when it comes to human weakness, authenticity is certainly no excuse for rude behavior, loose temper, or bad manners. The opposite is correct. Authenticity means, to say it a bit prosaically, to strive for the better self. Thereby the focus is not directed at displaying what has been achieved but that the person is actually striving and aware of this process. Even if something goes wrong, this awareness will be met with respect if it is genuine.