June 10, 2024

A Disrupter’s Take on Authenticity

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While accepting the Women Law Enforcement Executive of the Year Award, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor (now Mayor of Tampa) said in her acceptance speech, “Always be yourself — unless you’re an asshole.”

I have been stealing that line from her for years (with attribution) because it contradicts the advice to “always be who you are.”

Authenticity is a buzzword, and everyone advises to “be yourself.”

To Jane’s point, what if you’re an asshole? I’m even more interested in exploring: what if you don’t know who you are? How do you know who to be?

Hear me out.

When it comes to authenticity, I understand that concept when applied to adhering to your values and principles. Those should be unwavering. But when it comes to being you, I challenge that we are all in a continual state of becoming, and there is no fixed version of ourselves to “be.”

I spent most of my career trying to find my authentic voice because psychology and leadership books told me to do that. When I started in law enforcement, I didn’t know how to be a police officer, and when I got promoted the first time, I didn’t know how to lead. I tried to lean into learning, and I did it by emulating those I witnessed leading effectively. I also watched autocratic and narcissistic leaders and made it my mission to do the opposite of what they did. By studying the people I admired, I started doing the things they did and tried to commit to constant self-improvement.

Every turn, we hear about authenticity and how it is the secret sauce to leadership and life. But when we’re so busy trying to find ourselves, we limit ourselves. Instead, we should lean into curiosity, explore uncharted territories, and discover if we can become something completely new and improved.

Authenticity is often seen as the secret sauce to leadership and life, but constantly seeking to ‘be yourself’ can limit personal growth. We are hindering ourselves by remaining who we are.

Understanding Authenticity

Authenticity is often defined as being true to oneself, a concept rooted in philosophical and psychological theories. Authentic culture means it’s original to its possessors, one which exists only with them. In other words, it’s attributed to origin like an “authentic” piece of art or “authentic” cuisine. In relation to the human experience, we are told we should strive to gain this same ideology in our individual existence. Remaining true to your origin is a nice idea, but it’s limiting. I think of it like traditions. Our professions, organizations, and families are deeply rooted in honoring the past. Nothing is wrong with that, but we have all experienced how tradition can impede progress. By clinging to tradition, we become fixed. The same can be said of our authenticity as it pertains to identity. If we cling to our origins, we don’t evolve and grow.

I want to continue reinventing myself. I want hundreds of iterations of “me” so I’m indiscernible from my origin self. I take it as a compliment when someone says, “You’ve changed.”

Current Popularity

In today’s culture, authenticity is hailed as a cornerstone of effective leadership and personal fulfillment. During a guest appearance on the Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. James Hollis warned against “conforming to external demands rather than expressing one’s intrinsic nature.” I don’t know about you, but I know some people whose intrinsic nature isn’t great. He also says the second half of our lives should be for shedding identities. I agree with the shedding identity part, but why wait until our life is half over to do that? He says that early life is about conforming, and later life is about finding deeper meaning.

Bah. We should all pursue personal growth and shedding our skin at every stage of life.

I visited my daughter and son-in-law in Illinois during the cicada beetle infiltration. I saw hundreds of cicadas around her house, and I was in awe as I watched one completely walk out of its shell. It literally shed its skin and left it behind. The metaphor is that you can shed your skin repeatedly and transform into the next version of yourself, which is the opposite of “just being you.”

Dr. Hollis also said living authentically means honoring true personal values over noise. This I’m buying. The framework is to develop a set of values to which you are unwavering while remaining open to your own evolution.

“I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” This is the United States Air Force creed, and it can be applied to a principle-centered life. The creed is a perfect blueprint for living your life, so you can steal it. The Air Force won’t mind.

Research Findings

Studies suggest authentic behavior leads to higher trust and engagement in leadership contexts.

What does this even mean? It’s a word salad and says absolutely nothing. For starters, effective leadership often requires adapting your style to the needs of the team and the situation at hand. It requires you to meet the moment. It’s not about you.

Furthermore, what constitutes authentic behavior? This is superficial and lacks depth because some people might believe that being authentic means expressing their immediate feelings. We can’t have people doing this all the time without considering the broader impact. This could be received as unhinged.

The Paradox of Authenticity

Kariss Thacker wrote in “The Art of Authenticity”:
“Authenticity has been accepted across philosophical traditions and cultures as a state to which one aspires. It is assumed that being authentic is a good thing. It’s likely that when you describe someone as ‘authentic,’ you admire them.”

She’s right. I’ve been called authentic, and it makes me feel good. But I want to explore the idea that our understanding of ‘self’ is continually evolving. Our identities are not fixed; they change over time with experiences and growth.

Just as I studied the great bosses in the police department, I now study the professional speakers and writers I admire because I want to become more like them. It doesn’t mean I’m not original, but emulating others can lead to a path to self-discovery.

Imitating respected figures is not about losing oneself but about learning and evolving. I’m obsessed with speaker Cassandra Worthy. I can feel her energy in her social media reels, and I know her audience feels it when she’s on stage. She doesn’t even know me, but she’s taught me to tap into my own energy and unleash it. Studying her has made me a better version of what I deliver on the stages where I speak.

Clinging to a static sense of self can prevent us from exploring new possibilities and achieving our full potential. We limit ourselves when we don’t look to others to see what is possible for ourselves. Other people show us who we can become.

Embracing the Journey of Becoming

The 2024 version of yourself should be different from the 2025 version of you. I am doubling down on letting go of being “authentic” and reaching out for curiosity instead. Embrace and explore new identities. Try them on for size and see if they fit. Leaning into curiosity allows us to discover uncharted territories and new aspects of ourselves.

A growth mindset, the belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed, complements the idea of continuous becoming. My opinions and beliefs on many topics have changed over the years. The more educated I’ve become, and the more my life experiences have expanded, my ideas have evolved. Does this mean I lack authenticity?

Identity is closely related to our authenticity. My identity was tethered to policing. That makes sense, given that I spent 30 years working and living in my police department. Since retirement, I’ve shed my identity like that cicada walking out of its shell, and it’s been exhilarating. I’m still me, but I’m a very different me these days. I was trapped in the police identity, and if you’d asked me when I was a cop if I was being my authentic self as a police officer, I would have said yes. But I see now that it was just a moment in time that allowed me to transition into my current identity. Being a cop feels like a lifetime ago. And that’s how it should be. So maybe true authenticity is more about being open to transforming into something new – which defies the definition.

People constantly reinvent themselves, proving that evolving identities can lead to more extraordinary achievements. I used to be a real jerk in my romantic relationships. Growing up, I kept one foot out the door and my running shoe laced up. I learned that from my dad, and it followed me into adulthood, where I destroyed relationships and caused harm. I was selfish and irresponsible with other people’s hearts. I didn’t understand that I was leaving scars. I thought I was hardwired that way, which meant I felt I was being my authentic self. “This is just who I am” was the story I told myself. When my dad died, I made the choice to no longer use that excuse. I buried that part of me with him.

Practical Steps to Embrace Becoming

1. Self-Reflection: Set aside time for self-reflection to evaluate how your experiences shape your identity. Do you like who you are? The first time I held a mirror up and discovered I didn’t want to be that person anymore, it was a difficult revelation. In the same way I chose to act opposite of those bad leaders in my life, I deliberately chose not to be like my dad.

2. Experimentation: Engage in new activities and take on roles outside your comfort zone to expand your sense of self. Try new identities on for size. Emulate those people you admire and respect.

Authenticity should not be confined to a fixed notion of who we are, but rather it should embrace the fluid nature of our evolving selves. By challenging the traditional concept of “being yourself,” we open ourselves to a world of possibilities to explore, grow, and become the best versions of ourselves.

Our genuine authenticity lies in our willingness to evolve, adapt, and embrace new identities that align with our core values. We find our true potential through this ongoing journey of self-discovery and reinvention. So, let’s shift our focus from merely “being” to actively “becoming.”

I encourage you to lean into curiosity, take risks, and step outside your comfort zone. Embrace the excitement of becoming someone new and improved and let go of the fear of change.

Instead of striving to “be yourself,” embark on the exhilarating journey of becoming the best version of yourself. Embrace change, seek new experiences, and let your identity evolve daily. Your authenticity is not found in remaining the same but in your relentless pursuit of growth and self-improvement.

Above all, don’t be an asshole.

 

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