Boris, Trump and the Cult of Authenticity

20/07/2016 17:01 | Updated 20 July 2016

Everyone wants to be authentic. It's all the rage - and quite right too. Being a truly authentic leader is sensible and smart. It builds credibility and boosts profits. But has authenticity jump the shark?

You can argue that, by and large, the last decade has been one long spin cycle. Glossy, over-produced politicians and business leaders; sophisticated slogans, focus groups and million-pound ad campaigns. Yes, authenticity is a highly valued commodity. But this recognition of its value has rarely translated into truly authentic people and actions. And this lack of role models has left it open to abuse. It has been high jacked and perverted, leaving us with a cult of authenticity.

According to the collective wisdom, Donald Trump is authentic. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn are too. They are incredibly popular with the people. This alone, the commentators and leadership gurus say, means that they must be authentic individuals. But actually, none of these people are truly authentic, and in this post-spin era they are about to be found out.

What is real authenticity?

Real authenticity is not measured by the amount of stupid or outrageous things you can say to appeal to your target audience, make tomorrow's headlines or make people laugh. It's not about saying what people want to hear, baring your soul, being true to one of your many selves or even being consistent. Real, lasting, personal authenticity is so much more complicated than that.
To be authentic you need to be self-aware. You must be able to take criticism and embrace failure. You need to adapt your authenticity to deal with changing situations and business needs. And that's why so many leaders in politics and business fall down when it comes to authenticity.

Authenticity and business leaders

Authenticity takes courage, it's hard work and there's no one-size-fits-all model. CEOs, especially, often find authenticity incredibly difficult to achieve and maintain. One of the key problems they encounter is the one which both Trump and Boris are about to face. These two men have made their reputations by assessing the gap in the market and developing a strong character draped in authenticity. But now they've got new jobs and new target audiences. In business terms they've expanded into Asia-Pac and their old authenticity model is suddenly obsolete.
Where does that leave them? In both these men's cases they are left with an enormous credibility gap; one which is likely to hurt them severely, at least in the short to medium term. And if they were business leaders, this might well impact profits. It would certainly slow down the expansion and leave them, and their business, open to ridicule.

For CEOs, authenticity can be incredibly seductive and incredibly dangerous. Authenticity seduces us and keeps us in our comfort zone. Being outspoken, saying it 'how it is', being a big, uncompromising character may work for many for years. And so will being the authentic, open, approachable, sharing, 'we're all in it together' kind of boss. While this authenticity is working, we tell ourselves that this is the way to succeed for ever, so we push the boundaries and become a caricature. But one day, these authentic traits will stop working - they always do. At that point, authenticity will turn on you and destroy you.

Authenticity is about change

Authenticity is not about relying on old techniques, old solutions and old management styles. It's about acknowledging that you are constantly changing, the world is in flux and that businesses and attitudes are moving at lightning speed. It's about knowing it's OK to be inconsistent, borrow behaviours from others and experiment with your leadership style - this does not make you any less authentic. All great leaders faked it at some point until they found what worked for them and their business. And the greatest leaders continue to refine and adapt.

In this new, post-spin era, authenticity is under the spotlight. Leaders who have built their careers on being blunt and outspoken are about to be found out. They have created a cult of authenticity. The expectations they have created are far too high. They cannot deliver. They have failed to see that they needed to adapt to survive; that they needed to take the criticism and learn from it in order to be a truly authentic modern leader. Just because the media says you're authentic, it doesn't mean you're a winner. And it certainly doesn't mean that everyone who rates, respects and loves you right now will love you forever.