In the West, we relish the ideal of independence and individuality. And in the leadership literature authenticity is praised as a virtue that distinguishes the most mature and effective leaders. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I believe authenticity is a personal virtue and a form of moral maturity. I also believe that it derives its moral value and weight from forces beyond the individual.
A Philosophical Summary of Authenticity
Authenticity became a prominent theme in philosophy in the 17th century. At that time individuality and personhood became conceptualized in distinctively secular terms, i.e., the person as “rational economic man” and as a free moral agent. Later, in the 18th and 19th century, romantic ideals of individuality placed a premium on the role of free, creative expression as a means of realizing authenticity. It was thought that there is a unique, substantive self within each us that must be found and expressed.
Alienation was defined in terms of how it signified a barrier to expressing one’s true self. It might stem from the imposition of social customs and roles (Rousseau), from subordinating ourselves to the moral imperatives of religion (Nietzsche), or from the oppressive structures of industrial management (Marx) or bureaucracy (Weber). Then, in the 20th century, existential theory placed the burden of authenticity and alienation solely on our shoulders as individuals:
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” Jean-Paul Sartre
A Psychological-Philosophical Version of Authenticity
We are born into a world, in a place, at a time, within an historical and cultural context, not to mention a particular family. Self-identity and individuation begin there. We form bonds of attachment and loyalty to a community and to moral values and beliefs that give us bearings. In the best case, our parents, teachers, and significant others affirm us as our interests take shape. Our identity evolves through our actions (as Sartre suggests), but it’s also situated in a context of historically constituted values.
Out of this, a person is born and continues to evolve. We struggle with bringing our developing self into contact with a surrounding environment and world. We enter new social spaces with boundary rules of some kind: “How much of myself can I comfortably reveal? Must I be vigilant for signs of threat, or can I afford to generally trust others?” This process continues in ever-expanding social spaces. We inevitably experience situations in role-taking where we are daunted by what is demanded of us.
In those moments of challenge, we experience self-doubt, pull back, suppress expression, adopt a more cautious style. These “defensive operations” are intended to protect us, but they also cloak us, conceal our experience from others. We feel alienated from the expressive, congruent flow of our agency as it is usually expressed in moments of confidence and with authenticity. What are others to think? Surely, they can see or sense this front too.
Losing and Regaining Authenticity
So, what is it that we mean when we speak of authenticity? How is it gained and lost? These are questions I’d like to briefly consider.
Authenticity is being who we are. Not only the ideal version of self we aspire to be, but also the actual and struggling self. And such authentic presence and behavior is not without breaks, retreats. But even as we encounter daunting challenges, with practice, we can become able to shorten the breaks and retreats, the moments of quiet pause. Moreover, we can become more at ease in making the felt vulnerability of these moments themselves visible.
Regaining authenticity can sometimes be more difficult. When we’ve lost our way for long, perhaps adopting defenses (denial, minimization, blaming, etc.), the way back can seem even more difficult. By now, we may have lost faith in our ability to be who we need to be in order to fulfill our duties. Shoulds, not coulds, dominate our thinking. This is when we must remember that we are not fully self-sufficient. None of us is. We must reconnect to something larger – to other people? Yes, but more.
We must at this point reconnect with our humanity, our nature as human beings, our limitations, our values and needs to rediscover hope and inspiration. We must reconnect with our creatureliness, our needs for love, and our capacity to engage humbly in dialogue of what is and what could be. We’ve never done it all without an appreciation for our nature, our needs, and the values and resources that provide guidance and support. It’s time for clarifying our aims, goals, and getting on a path forward.