The Power of Authenticity – In Emotional Intelligence & Leadership
© Steve Whiteford 2014
It’s curious that Authenticity is not identified as a component in any of the major EI assessments. But we can recognize it as an integral, and dynamic characteristic of Emotional Intelligence and resonant, powerful leadership. (Of-course so have others.)
I would suggest it’s not a quality that’s naturally learned or promoted in our U.S. society. Therefore, it’s an easily overlooked attribute. Our culture is generally results-driven; maverick, success, celebrity and money exalting. And with elections coming up, it’s fascinating to note that these components play a big part in influencing people to vote against their own interests, and the general good of humanity. Nothing new there. Neither is there anything intrinsically wrong with the origins of those materialistic, status enhancing motivations. At root they’re tied to a desire to create something good.
Yet, certainly on a personal level those same materialistic “guiding principles” can pull us from our own life-enhancing authenticity, and lead us into misguided delusion as we ignorantly or purposefully spin our sense of self and interpretation of circumstances to meet status-driven standards. We are led to habitually “pump it up” on the trust that appearances will get us there. “Fake it ‘till ya make it.” Granted, all tricks can be useful at some level if drawn from a deep source.
It’s clear that Authenticity is tested to the point that we have trouble defining it. I know it’s good. I believe I can feel it in myself and others, its resonance and power are often obvious, but it seems to have fuzzy edges and it’s a little bit scary. It’s scary because it’s often mistaken for in-your-face, unbridled honesty (not what it is!), and dangerous in that it indicates accepting and being “where you actually are” versus the aggrandizing façade of “pumping it up.”
Here are some standard definitions of Authenticity: “undisputed origin or authorship; faithful to an original or reliable, accurate representation; acts in accordance with desires, motives, ideals or beliefs; conforming with fact, and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief; having an undisputed origin therefore genuine (considered a synonym for authentic); executed with due process of law; authoritative….” (and even two references to musical phrasing). Diverse perspectives with an undeniable through-line that dances around a grounding in what is true.
Ultimately living from Authenticity requires facing yourself with truth, as does all growth work that may better open the way to genuine expression, results, and personal fulfillment.
One of many ways to gain perspective on Authenticity and cut a path to a deeper expression of it is through the lens of EQ-I 2.0. Using this assessment it’s possible that the compared scores of Emotional Self-Awareness, Empathy, and Reality Testing are strong indicators of one’s capacity for authenticity. Of course all of the subscales are affected by, or come to play in enabling this essential quality.
Emotional Self-Awareness is key because authenticity requires first knowing how you feel so that Emotional Expression is motivated by the truth of your response to your experience. But this is where things get tricky. Definitions emphasize “origin, genuine, ideals, beliefs, facts,” and too, “within due process of law.” We naturally respond to experience with quite a range of emotion that spans the distance across fear-based amygdala reaction, judiciously considered frontal cortex response, and bodily integrated, heartfelt communication. We might consider integrated, heartfelt communication as the law and gold standard – the deep source of Authenticity. The quality of Emotional Expression is determined by how effectively we plumb into the depths of those sources.
Empathy is integral to Authenticity because all empathy is derived from self-empathy. Understanding oneself and being kind to oneself opens the coffers of wisdom by igniting the ability to truly feel and hence to understand and feel for others. Empathy is the capacity that helps us to see beyond our own needs and defenses, and be sounded by authentic feeling, to experience from the position of comprehending instead of defending.
Out of Emotional Self-Awareness and Empathy meaningful Interpersonal Relationship results. There is no relationship killer like a lack of Authenticity. Most of us very quickly discern when someone lacks the capacity to be both open and truthful. Without openness and sharing of our genuine ideals, beliefs, perceptions of reality (facts) as part of interpersonal exchange it’s very difficult to spelunk from pleasing, surface pleasantries, through the thin crust of defense into measured response, to the depths of substantial, bond-building exchange.
Reality Testing is integral to decoding internal and external information. It requires awareness of thought, feeling and external cues, plus the impulse to consider the authenticity (or accuracy) of our instant interpretation of them. Reality Testing is and should be happening all the time, but the question is which level of perception are we running with and what is our track record of accuracy with a given level of perception in given situations. Simple example:
We often react to people based on how they look. (Amygdala/Limbic response).
People with crossed arms are defensive!
Applied thought might change our perspective. (Frontal Cortex response)
Or sometimes they’re just cold! I’ve made this mistake before.
Checking external information/internal feeling focuses the picture. (Heart/Gut/Sense response)
They’re smiling warmly, their arms are relaxed in the pose, feels friendly. Just resting their arms!
You might say Reality Testing is Pumping It Down, using discernment about internal and external sources. Pumping it down has the effect of connecting us to empathy. As we recognize our own feelings we create space for the feelings of others. Let’s revisit the scenario with a little more detail and a slight twist:
Is this person judging me? I see the tension in their body – their vocal tone is a little tight. This person is on the defense. Wow, I’m feeling a little nervous.
Now I’m feeling defensive. I can feel my neck tightening up. That’s sad. I remember how that can be. I wonder what’s true for them right now. I wonder how I might help relax them….maybe a smile….
Even on-the-spot, opening to our own feelings and accepting them allows a grounding that opens us to others in a way that produces confidence with a level playing field. We all have feelings; the majority of us have good intentions.
The same shift down has worked for some of my job search clients as a confidence builder. When they ground themselves in their current situation, acknowledge their feelings, have self-empathy and feel the power of their vulnerability, they’re able to pump it down from feeling they need to be something other than who they are with experience they don’t have. The result is they feel stronger and more confident about who they truly are and the skills they have.
Sometimes ignoring our truth debilitates our talents and ability to forge strong relationships. It’s quite common that people do this to enhance or preserve status.
Recently I had a meeting with a friend and business associate who was behaving erratically and unable to focus. At first I was feeling oddly judged in the situation and could feel my defenses rising, but I decided to practice what I preach. As we stumbled through a disconnected conversation I paid attention to my feeling and went below my frustration and budding anger to the soft spot of sadness and disappointment I was feeling. When I hit that authentic feeling – I was able to ask insightful and unthreatening questions centered in the fact that I cared about this person. In response to my gentle probing, she shifted down with me and soon revealed the very personal source of her scattered state. Of course it had nothing to do with me. But when she revealed her truth I respected her more and was gratified to experience her trust and friendship which only adds to our business relationship.
People who are in the minority, like me, struggle with Authenticity because aspects of who they truly are may evoke rejection or possibly danger in different circumstances. To be known can cause a big loss of status depending on the consciousness of the majority group. LGBT people, racial, religious, financial minorities – anyone who is part of a group considered “one-down” from the majority can be challenged to live less authentically as a means to achieve or maintain a particular status. Most people change as they assume status; dialect, wardrobe, cuisine, neighborhood, friends, etc. Yet, ultimately the discerning bias is gut feeling centered in human goodness, and empathy for the truth of self and for others.
Business notoriously challenges our Authenticity. It’s a realm where being a successful trickster can be expected and admired; deception as a badge of intelligence and dominance. Corporations embrace unfair practices and build deceptive systems that funnel money to the top while keeping workers down. Lip service and twisted values can be the norm when pretense reigns. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
But businesses with real values that are felt and demonstrated often thrive and sustain longevity. Off the top of my head – Starbucks, Apple, Amazon, National Instruments, Newman’s Own, Trader Joe’s, Costco, HEB, and more.
Much has been written about Authentic Leaders as people who are in touch with their own feelings and deep values and evoke and respect the feelings and values of others. They are aware of and responsible for their impact, while being themselves, yet open to learning and keeping tabs of the reach of their impact from the personal through the organization and into the social/world levels. They challenge themselves, accepted concepts, practices, and values for the greater good of their organizations and people. By trial, error, and learning they courageously and naturally lean into Emotional Self-Awareness, Empathy and Reality Testing effectively pumping it down.