Authenticity is Who and What Quintessential Leaders AreA discernible trait of quintessential leaders is that we are continually striving for authenticity in every part of who, what, and how we are. It is an easily-identifiable part of our character which is borne out by our behavior.

One of the easiest aspects of behavior that shows us what both unquintessential leadership and quintessential leadership looks like is in our verbal and written communication with others.

Whether we are authentic or unauthentic is plain to see by what words we say and write and how we say and write them. 

The words we choose and the method we use to convey those words provide vital insights into whether we are striving for authenticity or whether we are, at the heart, core, and soul of who we are, either struggling with inauthenticity or we are truly committed to being inauthentic as a matter of course.

I make the distinction between struggling with inauthenticity and being committed to it because it’s important for all of us to understand that quintessential leaders will struggle at times with inauthenticity, while unquintessential leaders don’t struggle at all with it because being inauthentic is a committed way of being for them.

So what makes the difference between struggling with inauthenticity and being committed to it?

Awareness is the difference.

Quintessential leaders who are being inauthentic are not aware of being inauthentic, but as soon as they become aware of the inauthenticity, they commit to changing it immediately.

Unquintessential leaders, on the other hand, are fully aware of being inauthentic and are determined to remain inauthentic.

How do I know this? Because I’ve struggled with inauthenticity at times and not even realized it. However, once it hit me between the eyes, opening my eyes to an area of inauthenticity, I immediately made and fulfilled the commitment to change it.

Not being aware of inauthenticity is a part of the growth cycle for humans and the mature development of quintessential leaders (if all of us were already perfect, we’d have absolutely nothing to do and no place to go and life would be interminably boring and meaningless). 

However, it is often the case – to our shame and discredit – that as we who are striving to be quintessential leaders are unaware of our own areas of inauthenticity, we are eager to and constantly pointing, in public venues and in condemning language, out the areas of inauthenticity in other growing-into-quintessential-leaders who are unaware of their own areas of inauthenticity. 

This is unquintessential leadership behavior. Quintessential leaders examine themselves and they focus on changing what they need to change. They do not constantly exalt themselves as paragons of virtue and continually look around at everyone else and proclaim, for the whole world to see, their faults and shortcomings.

Instead, they work diligently to be an example, in every area of their lives, of what quintessential leadership looks like. They know that action – their own work on themselves – can be a powerful motivator and teacher for everyone with whom their lives intersect.

They also know that constant and public criticism and condemnation is not only a powerful demotivator, but a lousy example for anyone to follow and emulate (unfortunately, human nature tends toward this kind of behavior, so there are always plenty of admirers and supporters in criticism and condemnation of other people).

So before we look at what authenticity in communication looks like, let’s first look at what it doesn’t look like.

Vladimar Nabokov wrote, “Words without experience are meaningless.” I would clarify this to say that any words spoken or written without experience or empathy (literally the ability and choice to walk in the shoes of someone else’s experience and understand that experience from their perspective) and compassion are meaningless.

Inauthenticity in communication says and writes words that are empty and hollow because the person communicating them either has never experienced what they are communicating about or they lack empathy and compassion, choosing to assume they know something they don’t or choosing to pass judgment without facts, without understanding, and without knowledge.

This is unquintessential leadership because pride and arrogance are behind the communication as well as a total lack of kindness and gentleness. In other words, the communicator believes, even though they don’t have clue nor do they care what they’re talking about, that they are entitled to say or write the words as well as being harsh and condemning in the process.

Inauthenticity in communication is also evident in the common behavior of simply parroting cliches, “conventional wisdom,” and idioms because it seems like the right thing to say or write.

There is no thought or depth that goes into these utterances. In fact, this is the cheap and easy way out: we throw a well-worn phrase that sounds good and we’ve heard all our lives at someone else, check it off our list (while patting ourselves on the back for our generosity and benevolence toward the poor souls we communicated with), erase it permanently, and go blissfully on with our unimpacted lives without missing a beat.

Parroting as a method of communication is unquintessential leadership for a couple of reasons.

The first is motivation. We’re communicating something we’ve always heard – but most of the time have not had to put to the test of veracity through experience – because it makes us feel better, not because it will make the person we’re communicating with feel better.

The second reason parroting is unquintessential leadership is because we are not taking the person we’re communicating with into account at all. We don’t seek insight and understanding by taking the time to really listen to them – we may hear them, but there’s a world of difference between just hearing and really listening – nor do we take the time to think about the kind of communication we would want from someone if we were in the same or similar circumstances. 

By simply parroting something we’ve heard but have no evidence or proof of its value and/or truth, we effectively complete dismiss the person we’re communicating with and we tell them we don’t care about them and they are not important enough to us for us to waste our time with them.

So now that we know what it doesn’t look like, let’s discuss what authenticity in communication – quintessential leadership – does look like.

Unfortunately, as Nabokov stated, experience is often how we gain the ability to be authentic in our communication with other people. However, whether we have authenticity in our communication with others still comes down to us making the choice to be authentic.

Choosing authenticity in our communication with other people requires an investment from us. In them. In time. In effort. In carefulness.

In a society where unquintessential leadership abounds, as well as entitlement and “it’s all about me,” the selflessness required for this kind of investment has all but disappeared.

The difference between empathy and sympathyBut quintessential leaders know that they don’t have to have experienced something to be authentic in their communication with other people. And because of their commitment to developing unimpeachable character, two of the highly-developed traits they have are empathy and compassion for other people.

Empathy, like most of the other traits that make quintessential leaders trustworthy, is very rare and getting rarer. Most people believe that sympathy and empathy are the same thing and they are not.

Sympathy takes no long-term investment in another person: it tends to be a hands-off, “one-and-done” event.

Empathy, on the other hand, is a hands-on, long-term, hand-in-hand walk through the journey of – and with – another person. It is seeing through their eyes, understanding through their thoughts and emotions, and listening with interaction to know what is really behind their communication (often the words that are said or written have something else entirely behind them).

Compassion is always a by-product of and a companion of empathy. It is understanding, encouraging, invested, gentle, kind, and patient. It can be – and should be – the result of our own struggles, setbacks, and hard times in life. 

But because compassion and empathy are so interrelated, many people choose a lack of compassion because they offer only sympathy as a one-time-shot to other people.

These same people also, ironically, do everything in their power to evoke compassion toward themselves, including constant manipulation, self-exaltation, and telling everyone how they are not like all those other poor slobs in the world who don’t deserve anyone’s compassion.

This is the Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind) syndrome, because like Margaret Mitchell’s infamous anti-heroine, in the end, everything is all about them and they refuse to share the stage of life with anyone else.

Another area that demonstrates the authenticity of quintessential leaders in communication with other people is that quintessential leaders do not parrot cliches, “conventional wisdom,” or idioms. Instead, quintessential leaders consider carefully the impact of their words and how they use them.

Because quintessential leaders are invested in other people, they understand and are sensitive to the needs that exist.

Words have power and weightThey are also profoundly aware of the power of words, the impact of words, and the effect of words. 

They are not cavalier with words, simply letting whatever comes immediately to mind come out in their speech and writing. They always spend a considerable amount of time looking for ways to deeply and encouragingly communicate and avoiding hurt and offense. 

They know and understand that even words that may advocate a course correction should build up and not tear down. That can’t be done with parroting something someone else has said or something they’ve heard all their lives. It can only be done with original thought combined with empathy and compassion.

This is just one aspect of behavior that makes quintessential leaders rare in society today.

But each of us is striving to become a quintessential leader, so this must be a behavior we develop, grow, and exhibit everywhere in our lives and model for all the teams we lead in our lives. 

I say this often, but it cannot be repeated too much. If you breathe for a living, you lead at least one team in your life. Quintessential leadership is not confined to organizations, and can, therefore, be dismissed by everyone else. 

Somebody in your life is looking to you and depending on you to model leadership for them. It might be your children. It might be your students. It might be your family members. It might be your spouse. It might be your coworkers. It might be your friends. It might be the sports team you coach. It might be the volunteer groups you are involved with. It might be anybody.

So, as always, we must look in our own mirrors and conduct a thorough, extensive, comprehensive, and fearlessly honest evaluation of what our communication with other people looks like.

Are we inauthentic anywhere or everywhere in our communication with other people? 

If we are, is it because we lack awareness of our inauthenticity in our communication with other people?

Or is it because we’ve deliberately committed to a path of inauthenticity in our communication with other people?

If we find authenticity in our communication with other people, are we committed to preserving that and developing it to the point where it is literally a part of who and what we are all the time?

I can only answer these questions for myself. Each of you can answer them only for yourselves. Do we have the character and the courage to look, to see, to answer, and to change where and if we need to?

How are we doing?

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