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Defining authenticity: If a cat has four legs…

15 December 2014

By Dan Leatherdale, Partner at AGL

Authenticity is an important idea. It may even be one of the most important ideas, especially now that economic collapse has humbled us and made us warier of puff and hubris.

Increasingly, it seems, we like things to be real. Our footprints are lighter, our palettes more earthy, and our detectives more Norwegian. The Pope has cleared the Vatican shoe-racks of Prada, and the PM prefers Bude to Barbados. Even the highly-polished auto-tune excesses of noughties pop music have been replaced by earnest-looking burly people with bad hair and acoustic guitars. Why? Because it’s more ‘honest’.

And the real joy in authenticity, as a concept, is that it conveys so much meaning in a single loose-fisted punch. It speaks of a person whose tongue is not forked, and who chooses to be truthful over being politic. You can trust them, you know where they stand, and they bring a big piece of themselves into everything they do.

Equally, authenticity tells of a person who isn’t blind to their own qualities and faults, who questions their own motives, and who has a strong enough grasp of their own identity to be simultaneously vulnerable and brave, serious and silly, curious and assertive. In other words, they have a sufficient sense of self to act with compelling coherence without sacrificing unpredictability.

If this same person is lucky, or has done the work, they will also have the skills to portray or express that self to other people. This way, their thoughts and ideas can carry across space, intact, and into the minds (and selves) of others.

And this is the alchemy of communication: it makes a communion of individuals during a moment of connection – moments which, when nourished, can become the grounds for enduring and even-handed relationships that enable others equally to be authentic.

Given all this, it’s a shame that the word is becoming a bit of a mush. Pressed into glib service on too many websites, and on the front covers of too many books, it calls out to be rescued from the mossy banks of brochure-level blandness.

At AGL, we are trying to achieve this very thing. We have combined our deep experience of working in this area with an evidence base drawn from science to create a three-part model of self-sustaining authenticity.

Over a series of blogs, we will look at each part of this model in turn, asking what we can do at that stage if we are to achieve authenticity. We will also look at how each stage can be linked to a range of desirable outcomes such as enhanced well-being, higher motivation, better performance and a culture of inclusion.

For now, though, let me leave you with a thought. In his play ‘Rhinoceros’, Ionesco teases the circular arguments of self-regarding philosophers by proposing that if a cat has four legs, and so does a dog, then a dog must, in fact, be a cat. This was funny in the context of the time, but it may be that we continue to fall into the same trap: A grown up is a serious, controlled person who separates play from work, prefers dry data to stories, and keeps their emotions well under wraps; I am a grown-up, and therefore… Oh. I’d better change then.