I think I finally understand my profound discomfort with the concept of authenticity in the context of leadership.
This past weekend, I read a book entitled “The Narcissism Epidemic” by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. Narcissism is a state of excessive self-admiration, not to be confused with a healthy self-esteem. Typically, narcissists have an over-inflated view of themselves, for example of their attractiveness and abilities. They lack empathy and quality relationships with others. “This is the main difference between narcissists and someone merely high in self-esteem: The high self-esteem person who’s not a narcissist values relationships, but the narcissist does not.” (p. 19)
Twenge and Campbell noted research suggests that narcissism is not “really high self-esteem” and that narcissists are not merely victims of very low self-esteem. Studies also show that narcissists are not actually better/smarter/better looking than the rest of us. Finally, narcissism is growing dramatically with a “30% increase in two decades”. Now one in four Americans in their 20s
“answered [the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) answered the majority of questions in the narcissistic direction.” (p. 30)
Narcissism is about self-admiration. The authenticity movement is a natural outcome of narcissism. Authenticity is about expressing one’s true self, so everyonelse will know how awesome you are. The basic idea is that we will be happier if we can live they way we feel. The problem with authenticity is that it is all about one’s self, not about those around us. Taken too far, authenticity is merely another way to express one’s self-importance. In other words, being one’s authentic self becomes more important than the needs of others.
We say we want our leaders to be authentic. But I think we really want them to be sincere. That is, that they believe in what they say and do. Too much focus on authenticity may be yet another form of narcissism in our celebrity, success obsessed culture.
We are increasingly having difficulty working in teams in an era where teamwork is essential. The combination of increased narcissism and decreased empathy in our society may be contributing factors to this challenge. Perhaps we all need to start thinking of others, just a little bit more, and ourselves just a little bit less.