Is it possible to be completely authentic in all parts of your life? I was challenged on this recently, and the conversation got me thinking about what does it mean to be authentic.

There are lots of aspirational quotes available such as:

“Authenticity over everything”
“Don’t trade your authenticity for approval”
“Be fearlessly authentic”
“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”

While I find these quotes hard to argue, how do you achieve this? What does it even mean?

Looking for something

I spent the first 25 years of my career looking for something. In that time I went through eight jobs. That means my average tenure in any position was around three years.

I have plenty of reasons for leaving those jobs. Most times I blamed someone or something else. I blamed the company, manager, working conditions and more. In one case, I got laid off. However, quitting was inevitable so I will look at the experience the same way.

While all of the reasons I gave were true, I now see I kept denying one underlying factor: an inauthentic self.

Take, for example, my time working as a Project Manager. I spent a lot of time trying to live up to the expectations and image of being a PM. My friend Dave Dame like’s to point out that I even dressed like a PM (think business casual). Dave’s observation is insightful, and truthfully how I dressed wasn’t even the authentic me.

Beyond how I dressed, I had a job that required me to be something I’m not. At least these were the stories I told myself at the time.

For example, one place I worked placed a lot of value on there being no emotions in the workplace. Given I wanted to look good and succeed, I adopted this belief myself.

I would ask people to check their emotions at the door when I believed meetings were going to be tense. At the time I thought this was a useful tactic if I was to be a successful leader.

Fast forward to today, and I am very aware of my personality type, core values, and more. My natural temperament says one of my first concerns is with authenticity and the people. People with my character tend to be very emotionally intelligent as well.

So let’s return to asking people to check their emotions at the door. Asking people to ignore emotions is not authentic or natural for me. Leading in such an inauthentic way only caused me stress.

All the ways I chose to be inauthentic is the elephant in my room that I was not acknowledging with all those jobs. I was trying to be something I’m not. As a result, I was limiting the impact I could have as a leader.

Knowing and seeing authenticity

Authenticity is the act of being authentic. To be authentic is by definition to be genuine. Given the word authentic is an adjective it is used to describe the quality of something. In this case, authentic is being used to describe your way of living.

Think of the times you’re talking to different groups of people. Family, friends, colleagues, your team, those you lead, etc. Where are the places you’re authentic? Are you inauthentic in any of them?

If you’re unsure to what degree and when you are authentic, think of how you feel when you’re with different groups. When I’m authentic, there is very little self-talk happening in my head. I feel more relaxed and present. I certainly don’t worry whether I’m doing the right thing.

For the past number of years, I have been striving to be increasingly authentic in all parts of my life. I’m increasingly authentic in how I dress, how I show up, and in living and working within my beliefs.

To be inauthentic, would mean withholding what is essential to me in some way. For example, my first core value is freedom. For me, freedom means to let go of any belief that I need to be or do something I don’t want to be or do.

When I ignore a core value such as freedom, I find myself stressed and unsure of myself. I also notice the self-talk gets a lot louder and distracting.

It’s not that you cannot do things unnatural to your personality type and beliefs. However, there’s a price to pay for doing this.

In at least one case, I attribute high blood pressure to being inauthentic. I believed the job I was in required me to behave and lead in a way which is unnatural to me. My only evidence is the rise in my blood pressure while I worked there (I monitor my blood pressure). I also experienced a significant drop in blood pressure after I quit.

Honestly, only you will know if you are being authentic. People who know you well might be able to spot it happening. However, your authentic self is an internal process. Only you will know if you’re being genuine.

Authenticity in leadership

Leadership is creating the conditions for others to succeed.

There are countless benefits to people being able to be authentic at work. You will notice an improvement in things like morale, engagement, collaboration, absenteeism, turnover and more.

As a leader, there are many things you can do to support authenticity in the workplace.

Spend time with the individuals you lead every week. Book time with everyone to make sure it happens. Make connecting and knowing each other a priority for this time. Work results and activities are secondary.

If you think your calendar is too full to hold this time for the people, then that’s a problem you may want to solve. Knowing and supporting the people they lead is one of the most important jobs you have.

Another way to increase authenticity is to hold regular team events with a focus on the people (this includes you). Get to know yourselves and each other better. An event could be as simple as a social time or going for a walk together at lunch. You could also use one of the readily available tools which will help people understand themselves better.

People who can be their most authentic selves will always bring more passion, creativity and everything else that lead to results. In other words, they will be more engaged in helping you get the results you are after.