Leaders Understand the Boundaries of Authenticity

Phil Hartman was one of my favorite comedians, actors, and SNL players.

Over the course of his career, he started playing a lot of characters with radio announcer voices, like Troy McClure on The Simpsons.

On a Mother’s Day episode of SNL, Phil asked his mom something like, “Mom, I was wondering, what does my voice really sound like? I forgot.”

When Mara, my daughter, was much younger, she made an astute observation. “Dad, why is your laugh different with people you don’t know as well?” That’s when I realized I forced or exaggerated laughter during small talk conversations.

Authenticity is important.

It matters when building relationships. It’s not enough to know others; we have to be known as well. But being totally unfiltered is dangerous, and no one really wants all the stuff that’s going on in our heads. However, leaders can sometimes spend a lot of mental energy being someone others need, and over time, can start to hide being their “leader persona” so much they become somewhat unknowable.

I was talking with some friends recently about a colleague we admired but felt like we didn’t know. “It’s like he’s become a character he’s playing, and I don’t really know him even though I talk to him all the time.” We also talked about our concern for him; he seemed to not completely enjoy what he was doing anymore.

Shortly after that conversation, one of us found this article, and shared it.

I’m glad that happened – Mr. Herrara and Mr. Grant really hit the nail on the head.

When we play a role, it’s not just authenticity we lose. We also lose vulnerability, which is more damaging. We need to be vulnerable to build trust and stay mentally healthy. 

But it’s not that simple.

When you read the article, you’ll find this: Being totally authentic can have two major repercussions with people you don’t know well.

First, it can cause you to seem incompetent and insecure. Second, it can make you seem self-centered by revealing too much. Knowing your audience is important, right? And that’s where we get into trouble. We enable the filters for the first impressions, but then we leave them up too long and for too many people.

“Authenticity without empathy is selfish,” the author notes. We have to be true to our values, and it’s best if one of those values is caring about others.

3 Responses

  1. Sasha Liu
    | Reply

    Hi Alan,

    This is a very interesting topic which attracts me immediately. Because some of my personal experience recently caused me to think about authenticity. I am a natually kind person who cares about others professional and personal growth, but not much on people’s sentiment and feelings. I found that I can be authentic to very limited group of people who is like-minded. Because I played great emphasis on professional growth and knowledge and sometimes when I was under great stress, I tended to be very focused on tasks and how to get the system work. I maybe ignore the people element just because it involves too much emotion and unstability which makes the prediction and system work even harder. There were times when I found that the team just tried to push back their workload and not trying to achieve the greater good. I tended to play the tough role and tried to place everyone and everything into order. It caused people to think I am a bit cold and lack of empathy. I also lose patience with people who is not professionally intelligent and don’t try to learn and grow professionally. This can cause lots of tense with people who only work with the minimum effort. But through the study of MBTI, I started to learn that a larger population of people make decisions based on their feeling and what they see and heard. This probably one of the big mistakes I made before. I was too brutally honest with others when I didn’t know them very well and it turned out the people was totally different from I thougth and our relationship went sour significantly. A topic recently attracts my attention is about “Perception defines reality”, so how can I develop a balanced and positive perception while being authentic without playing a role in real life. I appreciate your advice if you have any thought?

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      Thanks for weighing in, Sasha – have you read anything by Brene Brown? I think Rising Strong or Dare to Lead would be perfect reads for what you’re grappling with.

      In the meantime, something that can help is naming your feelings, without fanfare, like “This might be one of those times I’m getting in my own way by showing my frustration. I’m working on that, because I’m concerned you’ll take this personally. At the same time, we need to talk about why the lab inventory is incomplete.”

      What do you think?

  2. Sasha Liu
    | Reply

    Thanks for your reply! Alan. I think this can be one of the great solutions. I am currently learning to express more of my own emotion as well because I used to think bringing emotion to work as a excuse is not very professional and I tended to suppress my emotion a lot. However, I found this is not very healthy way in the long run and I am working on the solution. In the meantime, I will spend sometime to read Dr. Brown’s book and will be delighted to share some thought with you after reading the book :). Thanks

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