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.