To Thine Own Self Be...Authentic?

Self-expression is an element of emotional intelligence that is often misunderstood.

I had a conversation the other day with my marketing director Angela. She was telling a story about a friend of hers who decided to become aggressive on Facebook and share things about her life that, frankly, only the woman’s husband, mother, or priest would care about.

Now, I know that aggression on social media is not a new topic, so I hope you will display some impulse control and not stop reading too fast.

I’m Just Being Authentic

Authenticity is all the rage in our culture today. I have talked to a lot of folks who seem to enjoy venting over social media.

A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior found that content generation using social media satisfies five socio-psychological needs in people:

  •  showing affection,
  •  venting negative feelings,
  •  gaining recognition,
  •  getting entertainment,
  •  and fulfilling cognitive needs

And before you all start to go off on the Millennial generation and their behavior online, the research found no difference amongst generations. Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers alike all use social media to fill some or all of these needs.


The question I have been asking myself lately is whether all of this venting--for recognition, entertainment, to show how smart and informed you are--is it authentic? What would an authentic leader have to say about behaviors like this?

So I started to ask myself what kind of responses I might get if I surveyed people about what it means to be an authentic person. Well, since I don’t have the time to do the study, I "Googled" to get an idea of what authenticity means to people. 

I just opened a browser and typed in “what does it mean to be authentic?” And up popped pages of results. I scanned the first page, and found it was mostly made up of articles and blogs with many opinions that seemed to center around the following 5 thoughts:

  • “To Thine Own Self Be True”-Shakespeare
  • “It’s my life, so I am going to live it the way I want to”
  • Expressing who I really am and how I really feel.
  • To be genuine and transparent
  • “Let Your Own Light Shine”

As I was compiling this list of worldly wisdom (pun intended) I was honestly in a bit of shock. Two things hit me right between the eyes:

  • To be authentic somehow means I am the center of the universe
  • Being authentic is all focused outward.

Authentic Leadership

Where is the balance? Where is the introspection? Where is the community to care and remind us of our social responsibility when thinking about authenticity? Where does this self-referential thinking come from? How do leaders need to be thinking about this?

When it comes to authenticity, self-awareness means being aware of what your core values are: What is really important to you.  In the world of mathematics, it is the ‘prime number.' That number that can be reduced down no further. In the world of leadership, it is what is most important to you above all else.


Here is a quick exercise for you to consider.  Write down five things that as a leader you think are your core values:

Here is an example that, in my work in this area, is a pretty common mix:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Community
  • Humility
  • Sense of urgency

Looks pretty good, right? Actually not that hard, and if I gave you a list of 50 core values to choose from it might make it even easier.  Ok, so let's let go of perfection and not get down on ourselves if we do not have our top 5 exactly right at the moment, that is not the point of this exercise. The point is that when our top values come into conflict with other values there is conflict.

Once we have a top 5, then we have a next 5:

  • Diversity
  • Individualism
  • Power
  • Status/position
  • Simplicity

Are you starting to see the picture?  When values come into conflict with each other a leader's authenticity is exposed.
What happens when your faith (belief in a higher power) comes into conflict with diversity or valuing a variety of cultures and lifestyles?
How does a conflict like this help us understand our own personal authenticity as a leader?

Authentic leaders are aware of their core values, and when it comes to choice, always deduce who they are down to these simple and profound truths.

Studies examining the development of the authentic leader and the relationship with the follower found that leaders who were more authentic had heightened levels of follower trust, engagement, workplace well-being, and veritable, sustainable performance (Leadership Quarterly, 2005, V. 16, Is 3).

I think that these levels of trust, engagement, and wellbeing for the follower are influenced by how close a leader lives to their own core values.

Perhaps some self-reflection might benefit some of those using social media to vent positions or to “seem” more intelligent. It may be worth their time to meditate on the long-term credibility and trust they are creating with their actions.