Problematizing authenticity

In the past two years I have been consistently faced with ‘authenticity’ as an adjective of choice. Authentic leadership, authentic learning, and a general pursuit of authenticity.

This is not to take away from scholars working in the space. Academics such as Paul Begley, Chris Branson and many others among the UCEA Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics are at the forefront of a particular stream within this space.  Although for an interesting critique of this collective, and their recent Handbook of Ethical Educational Leadership, see Terry Wrigley’s book review.

That said, I have been left with a sense of wonder as to how useful, as an intellectual resource, ‘authentic’ is when confronted with contestation.

During a recent class I taught for ‘Leading authentic learning’ [you can see the class syllabus here], I asked the question:

What does ‘authenticity’ offer us when we are confronted with conflict?

As I began to think this through, on the back of a recent differing of opinion, I came to a series of potential outcomes of conflict between individuals.

  1. To resolve the conflict, you are able to convince the other party of your (authentic) version of reality. In this case, the other person comes to adopt your way of thinking (a win of sorts, but see point two).
  2. The opposite of the above. You are persuaded by the other to adopt their way of thinking. However, this is problematic. In compromising, you are no longer being authentic to your way of thinking. Therefore, are you being inauthentic? The questioning being, can you be authentic if you change positions? A key question comes down to what your version of authentic is.
  3. A third option is that you concede that the conflict cannot be resolved – as neither party will compromise – and you simply describe the matter away as a differing set of worldviews. This is quite common, especially in the critique of neo-liberalism / managerialism and personal values.
  4. A possible fourth option is that both parties shift somewhat and create a new position that sits in-between the two original ones. This means both parties compromise to an extent and create a new option. Again, this comes down to what one means when they say authentic.

This is of course simply a thinking through of some, not all, matters. However, despite its popularity in some circles, I am not convinced that as an intellectual resource authenticity actually enables us to do meaningful work. It is fine for illuminating conflict, but I am not convinced it can assist us to think through, and beyond, conflict. In doing so, irrespective of any value in the construct for illuminating matters of the self, when it comes to dealing with matters of contestation – those which fill much of organisational life – it is rather limited.

As I continue to think this through, I am interested in any thoughts you might have.

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