The Politics of Authenticity

April 13, 2015

As the 2015 election campaign begins formally in the UK, it’s worth going back fifty years or so to reflect on a pivotal event in the political sphere that has important contemporary implications for leadership – in politics and beyond.

September 26th, 1960 in Chicago, Illinois is a day that changed the nature of politics. It’s also a moment in history that catalyzed a leadership debate that endures today: the battle between style versus substance or, put another way, appearance versus authenticity. What was this pivotal moment? The first televised debate between candidates vying for the Presidency of the United States: John F. Kennedy versus vice-president Richard Nixon. You can find the film on YouTube, but here’s what you will see: an urbane and tanned JFK in a dark suit that makes him stand out against the grey studio lighting debating an underweight, anxious, sweat dripping Richard Nixon in a crumpled grey suit that only serves to make him dissolve into the background. Allegedly, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, was overheard to say this as he watched Nixon: “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died”. Despite the weight of Nixon’s political experience and his status as current vice-president, the majority of television viewers decided that the inexperienced but charismatic Kennedy won the debate. But’s here’s the kicker: listeners on the radio called the debate either a draw or a win for Nixon. It’s a grand social experiment that illustrates that how we communicate our message is as important as what we say.

When we’re working with leaders who want to communicate their messages with greater impact, it’s typically the ‘how’ of their style that we support, improving body language, breathing, posture and prosody. Despite the fact that we all know intuitively that the Kennedy-Nixon moment isn’t exclusive to politics or to TV, i.e. that the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of communication are both important, leaders we support often pedal backwards away from adopting new techniques and approaches under the argument that it ‘feels inauthentic’. In the first edition of the Harvard Business Review for 2015, Professor Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Insead, argues that this defense is an excuse to stay within existing comfort zones because ’going against our natural inclinations makes us feel like impostors.’ She calls this the ‘authenticity paradox’. It’s a crisis of leadership identity we see all the time and takes the form of various ‘inner debates’ that follow these themes:

  • ‘How do I express myself with passion without appearing to do things differently?’;
  • ‘How do I adapt to a different context but remain true to myself?’;
  • How can I prepare to communicate a major message without seeming to have prepared?’.

These aren’t trivial questions. HBR reports that a study of organizational trust conducted in 2012, trust in leaders fell to an all time low. “Even when trust levels improved in 2013, only 18% of people trusted business leaders to tell the truth, and fewer than half trusted their leaders to do the right thing”. Leaders are rightly sensitive to the fact than any behaviour that smells of gimmick to their audiences is likely to produce an adverse impact on audience belief and engagement.

So, is learning new communication techniques just a question of artifice rather than authenticity? Our answer to that question would be ‘yes’, if you don’t throw yourself into the learning process and practice! Any new behavior will feel inauthentic at the beginning, and will seem so to others, too. But with repeated practice we move from ‘pretending’ to ‘being’. It becomes part of who you are and the audience responds accordingly. Essentially, the tools we use at Extended Mind – a mixture of contemporary psychology and timeless techniques from the theatre – help individuals ‘to be themselves with skill’. What does that mean? It means that the anxiety we all feel to different degrees when communicating an important message to others – and which can side-swipe our message – can be erased so that our inner voice find its way into to the world in the way that we want in order to make the impact we need.

What do we think of the about the authenticity of the political leaders currently vying for our attention? Who is authentic and who is political plastic? Of course we have an opinion, but in our view political opinions are best expressed tacitly within the confines of the voting booth. We’ll leave you guessing………..for now.