Being authentic requires that you know who you are. This is, of course, easier said than done. All too often our self-image is hopelessly idealized. At other times it can be punishingly severe. And decisions that are driven by aspirations and insecurities inevitably lead to inconsistent and inauthentic behavior, reflecting the divide between reality and self-image.
To get around this problem, it helps to anchor your self-image in the set of core values: the qualities, standards, or principles that you embrace and use to guide decision-making in ambiguous situations. This, however, is not enough by itself to ensure authentic behavior because many of the values we would put on our list get questioned very little. Who would argue with the merits of bravery, generosity, openness, honesty, fairness, commitment, excellence, family, fun, harmony, health, love, prestige, respect, service, and spirituality?
But the meanings of these terms don't stay the same. They develop as you yourself develop: what seems brave at 18 is likely to seem foolhardy at 40. In other words, to meaningfully ground one's self-image in values a person has to spend time reflecting on what defines those values and how they relate to any given context. Since many of the concepts get imprinted at a young age, I expect that many people have not seriously confronted what they mean by the values they claim to espouse.
That's just the first problem. The second is even harder to do: managing yourself in situations in which your values conflict, which they inevitably will. Two of my most important personal values are fairness and effectiveness. But being fair and being effective can pull you in two different directions. How you resolve this tension determines how authentic people perceive you to be.
Often the solutions you come up with may feel uncomfortable, even inauthentic, to yourself. Let me offer this small anecdote as an illustration. When I was managing my family's company, salesmen were refunded monthly for their expenses in calling on clients — particularly their gas bills. At one point, our auditors noticed that gas expenses were going up even when sales were not. Looking more closely into it, we found that some of our salesmen were padding their gas bills to collect some extra money.
So, in the name of fairness, I devised a way to calculate the gasoline allowance for each salesman, each month taking into account the distance he had to drive, the frequency of calls, and the amount of sales to each client. This new system was rigorously fair to each salesman. But it was also complex, time-consuming, costly, and counterproductive. It forced me into "bargaining" with a number of salesman and actually lowered the morale of the whole group because it seemed obvious to them that management no longer trusted them.
Wasting everyone's time and bringing down everyone's morale certainly was not authentic managerial behavior on my part. I finally had to abandon my "fair" system and adopt the simple but "less fair" system of reimbursing each salesman by the amount of sales he had made that month, regardless of how much driving and gas it had taken to accomplish that. The strange thing is that, while I felt inauthentic applying this somewhat illogical system, it seemed fair to the salesmen!
The lesson I learned is that, even though you might think that one's authenticity ought to be entirely one's own, it actually belongs to other people as well. In other words, how I resolved my conflict between fairness and effectiveness required paying some attention to how my actions touched the values and self images of the people I was managing. The salesmen didn't see me as less authentic because of my U-turn, because they felt I was being both fair to them and effective.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. You cannot allow other people to dictate your values and at times you have to make a stand for your own beliefs where there is a real conflict. But real life is seldom clear-cut and it is a your job to navigate ambiguity. You will do so more effectively if you think through more carefully and more rationally your values, the contexts in which you apply them, and the concerns and priorities of the people you deal with. Taking a position and firmly never budging can make you look like an unrealistic idealogue rather than an authentic manager.
Bottom line, actually being authentic can sometimes feel inauthentic.