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The Power of Authenticity

By Teresa Carale, MHI President

The cover of the January–February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review magazine featured: “The Problem with Authenticity: When It’s OK to Fake It Till You Make It.” Is there truly a problem with authenticity?

It would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the power of image. As a picture is worth a thousand words, one’s image produces impressions on others that can be deep and lasting. For some, however, there appears to be a conflict between the two concepts: image and authenticity. Some argue that there is no need to worry about image if one is authentic. Certainly, authenticity bridges the gap between reality and image.

A strong, positive image can go a long way in enhancing the influence of a leader. If there is incongruity between the image and reality, the image generated will eventually fracture, and any influence a leader initially had will be lost. On the other hand, if one’s purpose is to enhance one’s image so that one’s best qualities are emphasized, or one puts forward qualities that are most important for the job or responsibility one has, then there is no conflict with reality, and no problem with a lack of authenticity.

There are various ways to enhance one’s image. Consultants work with leaders to enhance their executive presence, as Ginny Baldridge explained in one of the break-out sessions during MHI’s recent Fashion Intelligence Symposium. The best starting point, however, is self-knowledge, which consists not only in being aware of one’s strengths and limitations, but also in being aware of how one is perceived by others and how one relates to others. This goes well beyond “This is who I am—take it or leave it.” A leader is open to changing and improving not only one’s image, but also one’s character and values. A leader is open to striving to be a better person and thereby a better leader.

Authenticity is so important that we at Murray Hill Institute have chosen it as the theme for next year’s Fashion Intelligence Symposium: “Authenticity in Fashion.” We also support the concept of authenticity through our mentoring program, leadership seminars, and conferences.

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The Quest for Self-Identity

By Teresa Carale, MHI President

In one of the most riveting scenes in the musical Les Miserables, Javert apologizes to Jean Valjean (disguised as Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of the town) for doubting his identity. He informs the mayor that they have caught the escaped criminal, Jean Valjean, and that he is awaiting trial. The real Jean Valjean faces a morally pivotal point, as the song “Who am I?” articulates: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” What should he do? The song continues, “Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery; pretend I do not feel his agony. This innocent who bears my face, who goes to judgment in my place…”

Many go about their daily lives trapped in what seems like a never-ending succession of actions. What should I do next? We often forget why we do these things in the first place. To lead rich, meaningful lives, we have to stop and ponder Jean Valjean’s fundamental question: Who am I? Self-identity is more than mere self-knowledge─of my likes and dislikes, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses. All of these things are important, but they do not define “who I am.” And that is why we allude to it as a quest─of short or long duration.

In the seminar “Resisting the Mentality of ‘Total Work’─in Search of a Fulfilling and Integrated Life,” Dr. Margarita Mooney talked about the danger of defining ourselves based on the product of our work, instead of the process of our work. “We live in the era of what philosopher Josef Pieper called the world of ‘total work’, in which our identity is so tied up with the product of our work that we forget to nurture our contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable sides.” There is wisdom in focusing on the process─how we do our work, and not only the product of our work.  The “how” reveals values, priorities, interpersonal relationships, one’s vision of the world.

Sometimes it helps to ask “what do I want written in my obituary?” That question speaks to who I want to be. And the answer to that question guides our quest for self-identity, and frames our actions and decisions accordingly─in our personal and professional lives, in our families, in society, in the world at large. “Who am I” determines how I speak, how I dress, how I relate to others, how I behave in the workplace and in social situations. There is integrity and the consequent interior peace when words, thoughts and actions are consistent with one’s identity. Authenticity is a quality that is valued in all situations, just as duplicity is decried.

It is worthwhile to embark or continue on this quest for self-identity. Only thus can we be effective protagonists in transforming the world and making it a better place.