“Be authentic, learn about yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses, and be yourself.” These words of advice were offered and emphasised by leaders during my Clore Fellowship. Authenticity is a buzz word, and, relatively new to the language of leadership, I was keen to interrogate its meaning and implications. In this paper, I want to focus in on the point where authenticity (being true to oneself, living out one’s values) meets activism. I take activism to mean acting to make a change (rather than the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “vigorous campaigning to effect social or political change”, but this point is a separate provocation). How can authenticity help or hinder an activist cause? Just how true to personal values should or can a leader of an organisation be? I spoke to UK-based leaders who work in the arts to gather their personal views on authentic leadership and activism, and in this paper I lay out my case for the authentic activist.
The meaning of authenticity
What is authenticity? Today, to be an authentic leader means to live by your values, to be driven by your core beliefs and intuition. Authenticity in leadership is arguably about knowing yourself well, your strengths and your vulnerabilities, your values and who you are, and expressing this through what you do and how you do it. It implies braveness, too: to let others see weakness as well as strength. Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London, extends this idea of being at ease in your own skin: “Personal authenticity is like a snowball rolling downhill”, she told me, “picking up pace and growing with age, with experience, with knowledge and with confidence.”
Authenticity arguably means living by your values, to the extent that personal values are not (only) spoken about but demonstrated.Early roots of the word ‘authenticity’ place the meaning around action, with the implication that to be authentic is to live out your values.
Thank you to my mentor Carole Souter, Master of St Cross College, Oxford, and Ian Rimington, Arts Council England, for talking this idea of authenticity through.