Let’s get real!

Authenticity. There isn’t much of it out there these days. Maybe there is among the animals who don’t know anything else. They never learned how to fake it. Increasingly, we humans are faced with fake almost-everything: fake news, fake images, fake claims. Artificial intelligence is only compounding the problem.

And yet, authenticity remains a popular idea. It’s written about in books by famous leaders (e.g., Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic), called for by employees who want to make a strong connection with their bosses and coworkers, advertised by jeans makers (Wrangler is “genuine”), and immortalized by soda companies (Coke: “The Real Thing”). It’s easier to promote it than to live it.

Being authentic in one’s self isn’t always a simple task. It takes insight, courage, honesty, and more – a sometimes inexplicable urge to simply be true to who you are, to the man or woman in the mirror. Being authentic with others can be even more challenging. Why? Because authentic relationships can lead to vulnerability.

Are you willing to open up to someone – your wife, husband or partner, your son or daughter, your best friend, or the person sitting next to you at the bar – and let your hair down?

Sometimes, it’s easier to share your true feelings with the person at the bar than with your spouse or partner. It’s safer since you don’t have to be held accountable for your sentiments after you leave.

In our search for authentic relationships, we long for what we often fear: intimacy.

I was on safari in Africa a few years ago, sitting in my tent one afternoon, when my tent mate asked me if I knew what intimacy was all about. Before I could answer, he offered this idea: He said to me that intimacy really means ‘in to me see.’  That insight has stayed with me ever since. For all the dictionary definitions of intimacy, the one my friend proposed speaks volumes, for it is an invitation to share at the level of one’s soul, to “speak” soul to soul, privately, intentionally, courageously.

So, then, can we say that a search for authenticity is really a search for intimacy? And that the bridge between authenticity and intimacy can include vulnerability?

Several years ago, a major newspaper published an article describing an exchange between Jack Welch, the previous CEO of General Electric, and William Harrison, prior Chairman of J.P. Morgan that highlighted the power of authenticity.

“In addition to holding their strategic discussions, the article stated, Mr. Welch and Mr. Harrison spent significant time together honing the executive training program at J.P. Morgan. Mr. Welch was particularly impressed with Mr. Harrison’s use of a group exercise in which senior J.P. Morgan executives, including Mr. Harrison, wrote on a board the personal and professional experiences – the more painful, the better – that helped them evolve as people. “Bill was very good at it,’ Mr. Welch said. ‘It makes you become simpatico with the guy.’”

 In that experience, Mr. Welch and Mr. Harrison bonded; they got “intimate” in a way that most likely led to a more fulfilling and productive relationship. They learned that they could trust one another.

So, at the end of the authenticity trail, lies trust. How can I trust you, if you aren’t going to be real with me? And if I can’t trust you, how can I, if you’re a leader in my company, follow you?

If you’re not going to be authentic, how can I love you?  The question is as pressing for couples, friends, and families as it is for business people.

Authenticity opens to vulnerability, which opens to intimacy, which, finally, opens to trust. If you want people to trust you, you need to be authentic, to be yourself. There’s no easy formula for becoming authentic, or testing whether you are. You can’t ask someone if they think you’re authentic; they really won’t know, even if your eyes are flooded with tears. You’re the only one who knows if you’re being authentic.

Each of us must find his or her own path to authenticity and the road it illuminates. First, though, you need to decide how much authenticity is worth to you. What kind of relationships do you want to have? What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to show up with the people who matter most to you? How do you want to be remembered?

The animals don’t know anything but authenticity and don’t have to work to get it. The buck in search of a mate is unambiguous in his hunt. The mother bear who protects her cubs at all costs makes no bones about her intentions. Being authentic is an easier path for them than for us. So, are the animals the lucky ones?

I don’t believe so. We are the lucky ones, for in struggling to be authentic, we must struggle with ourselves. In doing so, we become fuller, richer, more valuable individuals to ourselves and to others.

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