Resembling the repetitiveness of sectarian incantations, the business world’s obsession with authenticity points to a sad truth – it hasn’t got all that much of it. Just like someone reassuring us over and over again indicates, that what we’re being reassured about isn’t all that sure after all, the belabouring of authenticity wasn’t necessary, if there wasn’t a problem with it in the first place.

Today, many businesses are trying to embed authenticity in their DNA, through vision statements, core values or behavioural codes. As an unintended consequence authenticity has been inflated into its own cliché. We love real authenticity, but why do we struggle so much with doing real authenticity?

Perhaps it is connected to our thinking. We were raised in a social context that did not encourage us to contribute to our own and others’ well-being, but we were taught to obey authority, so that we do what we’re being told to – by our parents, teachers, bosses, and so on. From an early age we have been nudged away – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully – from that, which is truly alive in us towards what others expect of us.

Through various forms of reward and punishment we were educated to internalise certain judgments about the world and ourselves. For example, we have been taught, that some things should be a certain way, such as one should be productive, or ambitious, or tidy, or confident, or quiet etc. This kind of entrainment disconnects us from our authentic motivation, and through reward and punishment overwrites it with an instruction. This way of thinking has become so deeply ingrained in our worldview, that many can’t envision how society could ever live without it.

We now have a choice – to follow our truth and face the potential of external sanctions, or to follow the instruction and give up what’s alive in us? Unfortunately, anything we do out of pressure (fear, guilt or shame) immediately ceases to be enjoyable. So paradoxically, what someone else once was trying to get us to do, is what we become de-motivated about.

Today, many employees and successful business leaders secretly experience a nagging lack of purpose. That’s not a surprise; how can we be motivated, alive, productive and compassionate if there is an ongoing battle between our authentic selves and our finger-shaking social conditioning?

Of course we need rules to organise our social structures, but there is a stark difference between mutually agreeing and negotiating these rules and imposing them forcefully.

We end up in this world that Charles Bukowski captures in his poem “The man at the piano”.

The man at the piano
plays a song
he didn’t write
sings words
that aren’t his
upon a piano
he doesn’t own

people at tables
eat, drink and talk

The man at the piano
to no applause

begins to play
a new song
he didn’t write
begins to sing
that aren’t his
upon a piano
that isn’t his

As the
people at the tables
continue to
eat, drink and talk

he finishes
to no applause
he announces,
over the mike, that he is
going to take
a ten minute break

He goes
back to the men’s
a toilet booth
bolts the door
sits down
pulls out a joint
lights up

He’s glad
he’s not
at the piano

And the
people at the tables
eating, drinking and talking
are glad
he isn’t there

This is
the way it goes
almost everywhere
with everybody and everything
as fiercely
in the highlands
black swan burns

What are the implications for leadership?

I like to look at leadership as action that contributes value. Value in the sense of identifying specific needs and then taking action that contribute to those needs being met.

Authenticity in business is so rare, because many leaders and employees have not cultivated the courage to assert their needs, and to empathise with the needs of others. In addition, most businesses do not support the kind of honesty that is required to break the knot. Instead, sophisticated punishment and reward mechanisms sustain the dominance-vs.-obedience paradigm. We get sucked into endless games of being right and proving others wrong, instead of honestly considering “how can I get what’s good for myself, and how can I help you to get what’s good for you?”

The consequences are unnecessary friction and frustration, disengagement, stampedes of elephants trampling through meeting rooms, delays and unmet deadlines, political games, wasted time and resources, psychological illness and burnout, increased staff turnover and so forth.

We become part for the story of the man at the piano, politely faking enthusiasm, while secretly becoming increasingly desperate and isolated.

The way out is also the scariest one – to get real with ourself and with others. It requires us to replace judgments and labels with clear observations, and to replace shoulds and right vs. wrong thinking with a needs and solutions focus.

Then we may decide to give up playing the piano altogether, or we begin to rediscover the joy of playing it again.

© Ragnar Speicher