Additional Thoughts on Authenticity

Having read the responses here and on my Huffington Post blog, “Authentic Politics: What is That?” I think the subject warrants some additional discussion. So, here are a few thoughts.

When we’re discussing authenticity, there is being true to oneself and conveying that sense of center to others and there is adapting to the situation. They can be at odds. Or a situation can simply be new. Do we agree so far?

If we want to know the “real you,” it could be argued that it exists outside of situational demands. To some extent, this is quite possible. Your moral sense, emotional inclinations, and style predispositions, as examples, can be largely static. But, we come to know other people through how they handle situations. We can’t use a microscope to look inside their brains and see who they really are.

So, while it is preferable at times to get to know someone “warts and all,” we cannot be sure in most circumstances how that person will respond in all situations. This is especially the case with politicians. They are faced, as all of us are, with the challenge of conveying competence while also being likable. To meet this challenge, they manage how they communicate.

Right here is a problem for some people. They are looking for a candidate about whom they feel “what you see is what you get.” Any managing of behavior is dissembling and so diminishes authenticity.

But how are people supposed to just be themselves? What does that mean? Aren’t we all works in progress, growing and changing?

Some people adapt easily to situations and are as comfortable being assertive as they are being accommodating. We might call this the Bill Clinton advantage. He is Bill when angry or sad. At least we think he is. He can stretch his style and be as comfortable in one as in another. He appears to not stray far from his center for any appreciable length of time. Such people may express anger because the situation calls for it, but not become an angry person in the process. Bill gets this. He’s learned to move smoothly across styles.

Hillary Clinton is not Bill Clinton. She is also a woman.
Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University Graduate School of Business writes and speaks about how power looks. Appearing authoritative is important and yet so is being approachable and being able to relate to people on a human level. To appear authoritative, we tend to close ourselves off somewhat. Being approachable involves being more relaxed and open. Gruenfeld describes how we can “play high” or “play low” appearing more authoritative or approachable in the process.

Most women are socialized to use the body language of someone with lower rank. We also learn to speak in such ways. When we decide that we need to lead with authority, sometimes we leap rather than tweak and we create distance from others that causes them to judge us harshly.

Hillary Clinton tends to lead with distance rather than closeness, at least outside of her circle of friends. When you think about it, why wouldn’t she? As a woman, she must prove her competence. She’s running for president. Can she take the heat? If she sacrifices competence in order to be likable, a price is paid. If she does so suddenly, people distrust the move as contrived. The most she can do is tweak her style. Doing so while being viewed and written about in the media 24/7 is a tall order.

If Hillary were more like Bill, first of all, she wouldn’t be Hillary. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves what kind of president we want. That is, to some extent, different than asking whether we like Hillary Clinton. Can she do the job? Is she competent? Does she stand for what we care about? Is she able to work with world leaders? Does she have an impressive track record? Does she have the best interests of the country at heart and will she act to protect those interests?

This doesn’t mean how she communicates is irrelevant. It also doesn’t mean that by stretching her style she is not being true to herself and honest with us. We all stretch, present our best selves at times and adapt to situations. We grow. So long as we don’t take this stretching too far, so long as we aren’t different people at different times with no identifiable character foundation, such adaptation is a natural part of being human.  Authenticity, I’m suggesting, allows flexibility.  At times we need to be more authoritative, at other times more approachable.  For women, especially, learning to differentiate among situations and alter our styles to accommodate them is complex because leadership has been a largely male domain.  Some of this is all new.  Many of us have been out there trying to find a good fit in positions of leadership.  It’s a struggle.  Hillary Clinton, like her or not, is out there, “warts and all,” breaking new ground.

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3 Responses to Additional Thoughts on Authenticity

  1. Susan Pearce says:

    Thank you, Ms. Reardon, for your thoughtful response to a fascinating subject: can any politician be “authentic”? I was one of those commenting on yesterday’s post, and my initial reaction to it was what seemed to be a conflation of “authenticity” and “consistency.” Today’s post makes me realize that some of this is just semantics, and some of it is related to your point about how men and women in power are perceived differently and must adjust accordingly. That is certainly true.
    But I still take issue with the idea that the real (i.e. authentic) you “ exists outside of situational demands.” I would go so far as to argue that the authentic you is defined by how you behave in different situations. It’s how you act—whether you are relaxed and among friends or in a pressure situation—that shows the real you. And while I bemoan the absurd length and expense of America’s two year process of vetting and choosing a new President, there is something to be said for how it tests not only the ideas, will and stamina of candidates, but it also shows us how they can be expected to react in all types of situations that a President will face: when they are prepared and confident, rested and on top of their game, but also when they are unprepared; when they are challenged; when they make a mistake; when they are tired or angry.
    All politicians have to pivot on positions, when new information is received or circumstances change. But I don’t think it’s accurate to dismiss this as simply an ability to “move smoothly across styles.” Is admitting it when you are wrong, or when you change your mind a style, or a measure of character?
    Your point is well taken that Hillary has to cope with challenges that Bill didn’t face, simply because she is a woman. We still live in a world where a man can say something and be considered confident and assertive, and a woman can do the same thing and just be considered a b—ch. Speaking for myself, I still put too much energy into justifying why I did what I did, even if it’s wrong, than most men feel a need to do. It’s a generalization, of course. But most women want to be understood. Men don’t care—they just want you to do what they want.
    So let’s not compare her to a man (although it could be argued that Obama has been accused of being “aloof” – not “inauthentic”). Let’s look at other women in power: Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Madeline Albright, and present day examples, Elizabeth Warren and Angela Merkle. All had and have to deal with sexism, but I don’t recall any of them being accused of being inauthentic.

    • admin says:

      Susan: It’s a pleasure reading your thoughts and edifying as well. Certainly it is difficult to imagine a self devoid of situational reference — how we handled this and that. We can say, Kathleen tends to be sensitive, rude or kind, for example, but here again we derive that from seeing how she acts. So, perhaps we’re left with inclinations, ways of being we’ve internalized as part of who we are or that others have attributed to us that cut across situations. It’s certainly the subject of a worthy debate. I hope you’ll be sharing your ideas in the future too. Thanks, Kathleen

  2. Sandra Haynes says:

    To a large extent, I agree with your comments. I am glad that you articulated that she is not Bill Clinton. No one is. Often than not, the comments from the media, look at her in the context of “The Clintons”. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that phrase in discussing her. It reeks of sexism on the part of the punditry and does not do justice to this remarkably accomplished woman. Acting distant, I believe, is a defense mechanism against the vitriol that has been leveled against her over her years of public service. She surely can’t be blamed for displaying elements of paranoia and distrust – hence the email debacle. Many in the media speak with impunity against this woman whom they describe as inauthentic and entitled. When challenged on these points, the punditry is unable to articulate how it is that she feels entitled. Someone who devotes her life to public service in spite of the angst that the mere mention of her name generates is not entitled, in my book. Donald Trump has clearly said that he will do whatever is expedient to achieve his goals, mostly to this point, his personal financial empire. Yet, he is considered to be authentic. Brzezinski preaches about ‘knowing your value’ but pillories Clinton on her morning talk show about the fact that she commanded such huge fees on the speaking circuit. ‘They will do anything to win” is another comment attached to Mrs. Clinton and her husband. Yet, the public is constantly bombarded with Lombardi’s ‘Winning is the only thing’ which has come to represent the bedrock of American culture. The contradictions are stunning and perhaps say more about the lack of authenticity of her detractors. There is a school of thought that life issues are not black or white but shrouded in shades of gray. These concepts are based in reality and pragmatism. Mrs. Clinton appears to belong to this group. To attribute her value system to inauthenticity is both simplistic and illogical. Complex world problems demand that we think beyond our rigid, narrow focuses.

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