Wednesday, July 06, 2011

When Real is Just Shorthand for Rotten

I hear a lot about the need for "authenticity" these days.  We're told that modern generations (by which I mean not only my own, but especially those people younger than I am) value authenticity very highly, and are deeply suspicious of anything "inauthentic."  Now, obviously, no one, of any generation, claims to value "inauthencity," per se.  And, indeed, I wonder how much of our current push for "authenticity" isn't actually the positive thing that it sounds like at first.

I do most of my online reading on various religious forums, but I happened to stumble upon an article written for the Harvard Business Review called "Authentic Leadership Can Be Bad Leadership" (I actually found it via a free book for my Nook, but it's easier to link to the web version of the article).  While the authors generally agree that authenticity is a good thing, "being who you are and saying what you think can be highly problematic if the real you is a jerk. In practice, we've observed that placing value on being authentic has become an excuse for bad behavior among executives."

I find that I've been thinking this very thing for years, perhaps without fully articulating it.  We seem to think that being polite is somehow being "fake," and I don't think that's a good thing at all.  And it's certainly not limited to business executives.  This kind of thing can be found everywhere.  "Authenticity" is increasingly being used as a cover for rudeness and hostility, or for otherwise not treating others with respect.

That's not to say that I think that we should be "polite" at all times and in all places.  Certainly there's been danger on the other side, as well.  People have avoided doing or saying things that have desperately needed to be said out of a misplaced concern for being polite.  I'm reminded of a bumper sticker that, while perhaps going a bit further than I would, conveys the concept well: "Well-behaved women rarely make history" (I can't say I've ever seen a male-specific variation, but I expect that this idea works in non-feminist areas, as well).

The civil rights movement provides perhaps another good example.  Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. were, by all accounts, passionate about their mission of equality.  They didn't hide behind any false politeness when saying what they felt needed to be said.  They were "real" in that sense.  But surely a doctrine of non-violence (such as King's) in working toward such change also insists that we hold some of our equally-"real" impulses at bay.  The need for change was not used as an excuse to be "authentic" in all respects.  It wasn't an excuse for "bad behavior," to use the HBR article's obviously-too-mild term.

I'm not sure there are any hard and fast rules as to what counts as "appropriate authenticity" and what doesn't.  It seems to me like one of those areas where "we know it when we see it."  Even so, it seems clear that taking responsibility for one's actions is as important now as it ever was.  Being authentic is a good thing, but it's hardly an excuse for treating other people like dirt.

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