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Authenticity, John Powell

13 August 2013

The true meaning of authenticity

Reflections on John Powell’s book, Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?

In his book Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?, John Powell argues compellingly that it’s only by honestly telling each other who we are – that is: what we think, judge, feel, value, love, honour, esteem, hate, fear, desire, hope for, believe in and are committed to – that each of us can grow.


He suggests that we have to be free and able to express our thoughts to others, to tell them about our judgments and values, to expose them to our fears and frustrations, to admit to them our failures and shames, to share our triumphs, before we can really be sure what it is that we are and can become.


This is the real meaning of authenticity, asserts Powell: that our exterior world truly reflects our personal interior.  In short, we must be able to tell others who we are before we can really know who we are.


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The ‘Digital’ Revolution is now almost synonymous with the ‘Industrial’ Revolution in terms of the impact that it has on our lives. Impactful, like the industrial revolution, but perhaps more so because it is on a global scale. ‘Digital’, as it is now known, has touched almost every human being on the planet irrespective of who they are, where they live, or any other material measure. Whilst a large part of the debate surrounding this revolution has been geared towards what might be called ‘tangible products’, handsets, platforms, solutions and the rest, perhaps a little less has focused on the implications that it has had on changing human behaviour.


When talking about changing human behaviour specifically in Britain, I refer to a quiet behavioural change that has a little bit further to go before truly appearing as something that has the potential to change our lives forever. Nevertheless, it is gathering pace with a sense of intensity.


By the ‘quieter’ revolution, I am talking about a collective move towards a greater sense of authenticity. Authenticity in every part of our lives, but most importantly, authenticity from our leaders, be they leaders in Politics, in business or in any other sector whose public spokespeople have the ability and the responsibility to shape our expectations and the value set around which we live our daily lives. This desire for authenticity is not solely driven by what we have come to refer to as ‘digital’. Far from it, though it has played a significant role. Digital has enabled people to be in receipt of a far larger amount of information than ever before, an in doing so has quite literally empowered people’s ability to think, behave and react in a way that is far less dependent on leaders upon whose shoulders this responsibility has rested for so long. Alongside this has been the relentless and overpowering growth of twenty four hour news. Twenty four hour news has played a devastatingly negative role in our leaders’ ability to express their truth and to behave authentically. Such is the demand for instant reaction to news and events, as and when they occur, that our ‘they’ have had less and less room within which to maneuver or express themselves with any sense of liberated, free and authentic thought. And of course the more they are confined to speaking within the strict parameters of party political, business or corporate expectations, ‘lines to take’, the more the public feel disenfranchised and detached from a system that is meant to exist to represent their views.


In politics in Britain, our lives are run by the political structure that is increasingly out of date; a structure that is out of sync with an evolving public mood defined by expectations that have changed. Digital has provided the opportunity to access information, to talk freely on-line with one another and to literally build huge communities representing different patterns of thought. The traditional tri-partide system of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats has little to no relevance in peoples’ day-to-day lives. Indeed, were these three labels consumer brands, they would have gone out of date many years ago. No member of the voting electorate today can properly distinguish between the three in terms of deep-rooted ideology or philosophical thinking. There was a time when these three labels represented and defined distinct ideologies; a structure within which it was easier to authentically express ones’ certain truth. No longer today. Quite the reverse. Instead we are faced with political leaders whose ability to operate with sense of individual or indeed political authenticity is necessarily constrained by their inability to speak outside the confines of these three wholly outdated brands. The public can feel this. They don’t feel included. Far from it. Increasingly they see day-to-day politics as little more than a game that serves only to keep those who play it in power. They will not put up with it for long; and for the political journalists the game is the same. Unless the structure of the status quo continues, they will be starved of the opportunity to cover the ‘game’.


Interestingly, any drive for authenticity within the system, pursued by a select group of people who choose to speak outside the realms of a party political expectation, instantly provokes the label of ‘Maverick’. Maverick because they are genuinely and authentically speaking their truth? Or Maverick because these people ultimately pose a threat to a system that has for far too long been out of step with an empowered public who no longer feel the need to defer to their politicians in order to be heard and to get things done.


So public discussion of our politics has become more commentary about the stage upon which our politicians have increasingly had to act, rather than debate on authentic truths that transcend the out dated and outdated political barriers. Business leaders face an almost identical set of challenges. Discussion about remuneration and greed is slowly putting those business leaders under the same type of scrutiny: What should I do and what should I say? Rather than, what is the right thing to say?


The lacking in the ability of our leaders to act in an authentic manner, a manner in keeping with the changing mindset and expectations of the people, has potentially far reaching and significant consequences. As we become increasingly sceptical as to the authenticity of our leaders, so do we lose our own ability to identify what is expected of us and we lack any sense of this national narrative.


Human beings have an innate desire to have their thought process led by people with whom they connect. It helps to give a sense of national narrative. If our leaders are unable to behave authentically, then this dynamic ceases to be possible and we lose our ability to identify with any type of national moral code. To say that Britain has lost its ‘truth’ might be to overstate the case, but we are fast becoming a country who has lost her ability to define who we are, and according to what type of national identity we are collectively seeking to lead our lives.


We need to be careful if we pass the event of the Arab spring as having taken place only because they happened in a part of the world that has lived under a different political code for so long. Careful, because if you have had to be prepared to lose your life in the quest to speak your truth, as so many people have in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and increasingly Syria, the upshot of that is that in many of these countries, freedom of speech now exists in its purest form despite the political chaos that has ensued. Digital communication has ensured that people can speak freely with one another as well as organising mass demonstrations and gatherings. There has been a re-balancing of power, away from authority and towards the people. Towards people who have finally become fed up with their true interests being properly represented and understood by their leaders.


One would hope that such events could not ever take place in what we proudly refer to as our democracy, ‘the oldest democracy in the world’. Indeed our Houses of Parliament are ore often the first port of call for tourists who come to Britain. To many around the world, these ancient buildings reflect the quintessential pillars of a free, open and accountable society. Accountable we may be, but it is hard to argue that a national debate rooted in any real sense of authenticity is taking place, or indeed has taken place in this country for a while now. So are we really speaking freely? Do we really enjoy the ability to speak without any type of political constraint? I don’t believe we are, and I don’t believe that our so-called democracy allows for our leaders to speak freely either.


Obsessional focus poll research, the restrictive power of twenty four hour media and a wholly outdated and politically constraining three party system have combined to make open, free and authentic debate impossible. Those who have entered our parliamentary system with a genuine desire to seek change are often met by a system that restricts the free thought and debate that it is meant to be there to allow.


So it’s for these reasons that we need to be careful. How long can this already fractured relationship between a people and their leaders survive? It is hard to imagine our democratic status quo serving another four hundred years if we are not able to reinvigorate a sense of thought leadership built on the semblance of trust and authenticity.


For ten years now I have worked with leaders in terms of helping them to define and then communicate their truth. During this time I have come across many instances where these public figures have long since lost their ability to speak authentically, or indeed to identify with their original truth. Such have been the corporate or political constraints within which they have been able to operate. The result is that they have been lonely and defined by self-doubt. Any confident sense of ‘self’ has long since been replaced by a nervous paranoia as to who it is they are, how it is they are understood by those around them, and what it is they are ultimately trying to achieve.


The consequence of this new state of mind leads to a desire to hide behind the cloak of ‘political’ or ‘corporate speak’. Its language that is ill suited to their personalities and only serves to intensify their loss of sense of self. As stated earlier, ‘What should I say’ has become more important than ‘What do I want to say’ or ‘What is the right thing to say’.


The greatest communicators I have had the good fortune to work with are those who are prepared to take a step into an area which is not necessarily comfortable. An area in which they are prepared to expose and essence of authenticity in public. Authentic self-expression is not about projecting oneself as a perfect human being, someone with no frailties, no vulnerabilities and no sense of personal humility. Far from it, the expression of truth requires the development of a real connection with an audience. Such connection can be defined by openness, humility and vulnerability from which a sense of honesty and authenticity is self-evident. It’s a willingness to be prepared to share the truth of ones authenticity in good times and in bad.


The real truth sitting behind authenticity means that the exterior truly reflects the interior. It means an honest as possible communication of the person to others. Some of the great leaders of our time are people who have spoken in simple truths, often reflecting the philosophies and ideologies that sat behind their desire to lead in the beginning. Ghandi, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill. These were brave people, often operating in difficult times, expressing beliefs that may not have fitted in with the expectations of their peers, but nevertheless broke through the shackles of normality and expectation.


The ability to create a personal narrative, not one that requires any sense of the washing of ‘emotional linen in public’, but more a narrative that has at its heart the priority of expressing ones’ belief in right and wrong, outside the shackles and dogma, of an outdated and irrelevant political party structure, is the prize at stake. It’s what the electorate both want and need. The real danger that our current system presents is that sooner rather than later, someone will stand up to be counted. Someone who will more likely represent a view from either the far left or right of the political spectrum. Someone who, almost irrespective of their views, will nevertheless represent freedom from the confines of the only system that we know and for that reason and that reason alone, will court a great movement.


Anthony Gordon Lennox

August 2013