Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success


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The problem with authenticity

Almost every week I come across a blog telling us that the key to lifelong success is a thing called authenticity.

‘When you can be your authentic self, you will achieve happiness!’

‘Be authentic and follow your purpose!’

‘Authenticity is the key!’

These articles are laden with well-meaning commentary on what authenticity looks like and how to get there. Advice ranges from ‘stop buying material things’ to ‘find the love in everyone’. The articles are often confusing and not based entirely in the reality of our working lives and most of us will find it hard to apply the concept.

Authenticity is (according to my friends at Wikipedia) the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.


Researchers Erikson (1995) and Weigort (2009) found that it had more to do with a commitment to values and motivation and therefore is deeply personal and (crucially) ‘...incapable of challenge by others’.

And there’s the rub.

Your view of authenticity is different to mine. There are no hard and fast rules as to what it is, given that our values, behaviours, motivation and communication styles are different. My view of my authentic self is different to yours and therefore our opinions might differ widely.

I know a misogynistic, racist bully who fires off late night tweets in CAPS to world leaders threatening war, who thinks he’s the most authentic guy on the planet. Of course he’s not, he’s a dick and I can say that because my view of authenticity is different.

For me, the subjectivity of being told to ‘be authentic’ isn’t altogether helpful, however, you can become the person you want to be through continual self-awareness and feedback. And often the latter will force the former.

Some of the most authentic people I know take the time to ask others for their opinions on their values, behaviours, motivations and communication style. They spend time thinking about what it is that they stand for and whether that is in line with the way the world currently thinks and works.

These people never use age as an excuse, don’t put people into a box based on their gender, race or opinion, stay on top of the skills they need to be good at what they do and strive to behave in a way that positively influences other humans around them.

They think before they speak; challenge don’t conform; listen when they want to talk; make time for learning AND play; rest and recharge and are productively busy with their time. They consistently practice at being the very best human being they can be, which requires resilience, courage and reflection.

If this is you and your authentic self, then people need to see it and need you to share how you got there in a language and style that doesn’t alienate or confuse.

What questions did you ask? What barriers existed and how did you remove them? How did your lifestyle change? And who are the people that helped you get there?

Even though our views of what authenticity means might differ, often the actions people need to take and the behaviours they need to demonstrate to achieve it, are the same.

Being the best version of you will require education, feedback, hard work and personal change. The rewards may mean less material things and finding the love in everyone. It will also be the satisfaction that you became someone that others look up to and follow, in order that they can do likewise.