On authenticity and jerks

Beside battling myths about learning and education I’m still doing research on a topic that is again quite popular in the media: authenticity. The past weeks the concept of authenticity is often mentioned when discussing the success of Donald Trump. People seem to chose for the tycoon because he ‘looks real’ and ‘says what he means’. I could now refer to John Oliver to check how truthful the man truly is, but I’m not a political fact-checker. My focus is on authenticity and education and maybe I can share some insights.

It’s very difficult to define authenticity. Everybody seems to know what it means, but when you start discussing what the meaning really is, you’ll end up with a big discussion. It’s an essentially contested concept. Gilmore & Pine in their 2007 book make a distinction between authenticity and perceived authenticity. It’s a distinction similar to what Trilling in 1974 described as being ‘true to yourself’ versus ‘being true to others’. When discussing the authenticity of Trump it isn’t the question if he’s authentic or not, it’s the fact that people perceive him as authentic. And the latter has a lot to do with the expectations people have (disclosure: I just submitted two papers on this aspect with great data on this, but sadly I can’t share something about those papers yet)

I borrow this example from Hannes Leroy who did a lot of research on authentic leadership: who is the most authentic leader in this picture:

You could ask the same question when you look at this two leaders:

The truth is, it’s hard to tell. Their values were different, their actions too, and you sure will have a preference in both cases, but this all says nothing about how true they are to themselves.

Maybe even more surprising, should somebody always be true to him- or herself? Let’s look at the fictitious character of dr. Gregory House from the famous tv-series. Was the man true to himself? Most of the time he was truly an authentic jerk. Maybe you’ll want him as a doctor – because he saves lives, but should you want him as a friend or – more important – as a teacher for your kids?

Authenticity, or better perceived authenticity, is something often used as selection tool (cfr Gilmore & Pine), but it’s a selection criterion that needs a critical mind. Why do you perceive a person as authentic? Often it says more about your expectations and your own values. And than ask yourself if this is really what you want…

P.S.: The urge for authenticity can also be very dangerous. The very interesting book by Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax opens with a story about a couple who died looking for authenticity, sailing the world.

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