Living an authentic life is something we crave, and when we’re not living it, we feel a real hole in our life. People often ask me ‘How can I be authentic in my work, home and personal life?”
To shed some light on what it means to live an authentic life, let’s look at a major misconception about what being authentic is.
Authenticity is not about matching your feelings to your actions. That’s often what we think it means, which is why it’s such a point of dissatisfaction. For example, if we feel nervous and ‘not ready to lead’, it’s inauthentic to put our hand up for a new role. If we feel shy, it’s inauthentic to speak up as if we having something to say. So we wait (and wait) for our feelings to match what the new space for us is, and this is going about it the wrong way.
I think of authentic leadership like this: it is when who say you are and what you do is aligned.
The deeper layer of authenticity is this: Being authentic to your potential as a human being is the highest level of authenticity.
The essence of being human for all of us is to grow and evolve. To challenge and be challenged. To make a dent in the universe (as Steve Jobs famously said.) That universe may be as big as the world or as contained as the longings of your own heart, it doesn’t matter. Living this way is the truest expression of being authentic. It’s being authentic to your humanity and potential. Anything less than this is being inauthentic.
We all hold within us a deep reservoir of potential, skill and possibility. You are not fixed in stone. You are not your past. You are not your identity. So many of my clients have a dream or a goal, and then they diminish it by saying “but that’s not really me.” But who is the me they are referring to? If we are defined by our past then we can never evolve. If we consciously create our future, we can be anything.
This was a big one for me. I remember being in the New York office of The Hunger Project when I was asked to be the CEO for Australia. I didn’t feel ready. I thought I wasn’t old enough and experienced enough. It didn’t feel ‘authentic’. So I said no.
At the time I was in a meeting about empowering women in South Asia and Africa to step up and lead – and the penny dropped. These women weren’t necessarily ready to lead either, and they had all sorts of concerns and fears. Yet they stepped up. I too needed to reconfigure myself as a leader and CEO, so I accepted the invitation to lead. I then took the actions a CEO would take, and over time my feelings caught up to my responsibilities.
It’s normal for there to be a lag in congruency between who you are as a bigger potential, and how you feel about it. Expect that, and reframe it as growing feelings, not inauthenticity. We can be nervous and a be courageous leader! We can feel unprepared and take the first action!
In looking back at that time, irrespective of my feelings, stepping up to be CEO was the most authentic thing for me to do, given my commitment to ending hunger.Playing small, while it was in my comfort zone, wasn’t. Saying no to being the CEO in fact would have been completely inauthentic to who I really am.
I feel very strongly about this. Too many women are not stepping into their power. Either the future that beckons isn’t a match for how they see themselves, or the gap between the goal and their current reality feels unsettling. This mismatch then gets labelled inauthentic. But actually, what’s inauthentic is playing small, hiding your light, hiding out and staying comfortable.
Work out who you are committed to being, and be authentic to living that.