Faking Authenticity: Shortcuts to the latest management craze

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“The big corporate coaching/leadership secret: not everyone in a position of power and leadership is a good person.”

In appreciation to Lisa Rushka of Momentum Communications and Dan Gaynor, former president and publisher at both the Calgary Herald and the St. Catharines Standard, now executive coach, speaker and consultant with Gaynor Consulting, for helping me pull a rabbit out of a hat… the rabbit being the July 2015 Strategy Session (Alberta Venture) on faking authenticity. You know you wanna. Here’s how to do it:

Edited full text at Alberta Venture: Faking Authenticity: shortcuts to the hottest new management craze

Unedited full text below:

Faking Authenticity: shortcuts to the hottest new management craze

by Marzena Czarnecka

So you’re in this leadership development seminar, and the exuberant facilitator is looking at you oh-so-earnestly, and she says—for the fourteenth time? Fortieth? Four-hundredth?—“And remember, the most powerful weapon in your leadership arsenal is your authenticity. The key to being a successful leader”—cue pregnant pause to build suspense, whatever will she say next?—“is to be authentic.” Just in case you missed it, she repeats, “Au-thee-ehn-tic,” drawing out every syllable and drawing swirly lines in the air as she says each one. And it takes all your authentic self-control to not leap out of your chair and grab her by the neck and…

What? No? Oh. It’s just me then? All the rest of you are drinking it in, taking notes, and planning to go back to your organizations on Monday and be as authentically authentic as you can be, because that, as Ms. Authentic Authenticity keeps on underscoring-illustrating-authentically demonstrating, is the most authentic—the only—way to lead, and you’re all leaders, and you’re going to be the best leaders you can possibly be, and if being the best possible leader means being “authentic,” then by-god you are going to be authentic if it kills you…

Good luck with that.

No, go ahead—please. Don’t let my cynicism stop you. Please. Go and put on your authentic face—cause that’s what you’re going to do, isn’t it? You’re not really going to be naked and honest and authentic with your people. You’re going to act authentic. You’re going to fake authenticity. Yes, you are. Oh, yes you are—I know you. You’re a hard-ass entrepreneur, a career manager, a rising star since the day you were born, and you’re covered with well-chosen armour, and you’re now putting a mask of authenticity on it.

Guess what?

Everyone can see it’s a mask. And an ill-fitting one at that.

“Here’s the funny thing about authenticity,” says Dan Gaynor, former president and publisher at both the Calgary Herald and the St. Catharines Standard, now executive coach, speaker and consultant with Gaynor Consulting. “It’s not hard at all—it’s natural for real leaders. For people endowed with empathy, with a right heart—it’s just who they are, what they do. The trouble is, such leaders are rare.” Rare. But blindingly, obviously amazing. And we all see them—and think, wow, what is it that makes them so amazing? And we study them, take them apart… and say: “Aha! It’s their authenticity! How do we distill that? Copy that? Teach that?”

Ya’ can’t.

Ya’ can’t because their authenticity-reality-integrity-charisma is… theirs. And as soon as you start to copy it—well, you’re faking it, right? Snake oil, powdered rhino horns. And finding your own—well. You’re not going to get that in a half-day leadership seminar, are you?

Especially—please, let me name the elephant in the room—if you’re kind of a sucky person to begin with.

The big corporate coaching/leadership secret: not everyone in a position of power and leadership is a good person.

It’s true. Even Gaynor, whose job it is, really, at the core of it, to make good people excellent people—to free them from the constraints of pleasing others for the wrong reasons, to remind them who they are, and who they really want to be—admits that.

“I think this is the biggest problem with authenticity. What do you do with it when your authentic self isn’t so hot?” he asks. What indeed. Do you come to terms with the authenticity of your rotten self and live your rotten life authentically? Or… do you try to fake it?

Let’s chuck “authenticity” out the window for a bit—I mean, just the word. Let’s replace it with some others—words like empathy, integrity, compassion. These are all qualities good (real) leaders have. As Gaynor points out, stellar leaders care about their people and about their mission. They don’t need to be taught this or coached about it: it’s innate. They care. They are overflowing with empathy, they connect with their employees, peers, shareholders, stakeholders—they listen and hear and lead accordingly. They can get better at the execution of all of these skills—but they don’t really need to be taught them. They’re wired to care.

You know which CEO and leader I’ve just described—and which ones I haven’t.

I’m not saying they’re rotten people. I’m just saying… they’re not wired to care. “Not having a lot of empathy does not necessarily make a person a bad person,” Gaynor says. “There are lots of roles at which such people excel.” I omit the list, because I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but you may make an educated guess at which professions are on it. “But in a leadership role, a lack of empathy is a deficit.”

Gaynor believes you can’t teach empathy any more than you can fake authenticity. He’s worked with people who have recognized both the importance of empathy to leadership and the lack of this quality in themselves. “He would try so hard,” he says of one individual, “but everyone in the company knew he was putting it on because you can only keep the mask on for so long. And, when it’s on, it looks awkward and odd. And he wasn’t a bad guy at all.”

He just wasn’t… a people person. Compassionate. Connective. Aware of the feelings and needs of the people around him.

His authentic self was kind of a, let’s be blunt, a dick.

So. What ought he to do? Read all the books, go to the seminars, shore up his strengths: figure out how to “be authentic” at work—except, not his authentic, aloof “your petty problems are not interesting” self, but the great-leader-modeled-(in)-authentic “I care about you! Really! Tell me all your problems! God, this is killing me… is this smile okay? Have I made eye contact with you for long enough? Can I go now?” better self?

Or, embrace the dick within and just be the boss everyone hates?

Decisions, decisions.

Gaynor is pretty firm that you shouldn’t—can’t—fake it. But here’s the thing. That faking thing—it goes for everything. I’m talking to you now, there in the back. You are not a dick. You are also not—forgive me for using the word—authentic. Real. Yourself. You are a pleaser. You run around trying to please—your team, your shareholders, your spouse, your suppliers… everyone. You are competing in an eternal popularity contest. And you are a lousy leader. “When you do that, you end up losing yourself in the process, because you have to be someone different for everyone,” says Gaynor.

Now, you might be happy to know that the pleasers outnumber the unempathetic dicks in the business world (I know! I was shocked too, but there be data to prove this). But the pleasers are just as damaging to the brand and integrity of a business as arrogant, empathy-less leaders. “They’re the ones who put salve on the wound instead of saying or doing the hard but necessary thing,” says Gaynor. They want to be liked—in the moment. And so, in the long run… they look like liars.


Real leaders—authentic leaders tell the truth. Relentlessly. When it’s unpopular. Potentially litigious (truth is never as litigious, in the long run, as you might think—there’s data on this too). When it might cost them their job. Because they’re committed to not losing your trust.

So. If you’re that kind of leader… it doesn’t matter what from Ms. Authentic Authenticity’s seminar you take back to work on Monday. Whatever tools you encounter along your path, you will use them to connect with people, to listen to people, to lead people.

If you’re the other kind… well. There are a lot of really great business coaches out there who can help connect you to a different kind of career. In which you can play to your strengths. You know? Not every kid grows up to be a leader of a… I mean, a CEO. And there’s no shame in that.


Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com@paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com and NothingByTheBook.com.


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