By: JEFF PIERSALL & ERIC WRIGHT
The iconic commercial opened with young, flower-children types from around the world, smiling while holding their Coke and singing: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That’s the real thing, what the world wants today, it’s the real thing.”
It is true that people were looking for the “real thing” in 1971. The Vietnam War was a national humiliation, the Watergate scandal spawned a new level of cynicism and everyone pined for something harmonious and real. The campaign was so effective it was included 44 years later in the final episode of the advertising drama “Mad Men.”
Brilliant campaign, but hardly “The Real Thing.”
Who Is that Masked Man?
Great advertising always seeks to address our deepest needs, aspirations or problems. In this case it is the universal longing for authenticity. We demand it in jewelry, in sports memorabilia, and even in those designer purses we see women carrying. But like the Coke ad, those are a somewhat superficial manifestation of a much deeper need.
Authenticity is what makes us laugh at the most talented comedians. They peel off our cultural or social masks and expose the idiosyncrasies of human nature that we all know, but don’t always want to acknowledge. Authenticity is what gives a leader or advisor the authority to guide and direct us: “I have been there, I understand your struggles, but I have made it to the other side.”
Like bad breath, a lack of authenticity is something everyone else can immediately detect, though the source of it may be blissfully ignorant. Our word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek term meaning “behind the mask,” a reference to the masks worn by actors on the ancient stage. When ability or integrity is a thin facade, the relational or professional halitosis can’t be covered with a mint.
Keys to Authenticity
1. Trust is rooted in demonstrating in two qualities: ability (doing) and integrity (being) or to put it simply, “I can do what I say I can” and “I will be who I say I am” period. When we are clear about our abilities and are willing to honestly identify our weaknesses, that speaks to our integrity and authenticity, so avoid the temptation to oversell.
2. Vulnerability is a risky scheme, so leaders often want to keep people at a distance or relate to them only through digital or highly controlled platforms. However, this can reduce our ability to actually influence; seeing a person’s humanity and their struggles attracts those seeking the authentic.
3. Know when you need to suppress your feelings or fears for the sake of those you are leading. All heroes have fears, they just don’t allow themselves to be driven by those fears. This isn’t hypocrisy, it is emotional maturity, like children not throwing a temper tantrum when their will is crossed. America needed Franklin D. Roosevelt to say “You have nothing to fear, but fear itself” after Pearl Harbor was attacked, not “I’m freaking out and I’m not sure what to do!”
4. Understand what it means to be interested versus being interesting. One focuses on us, the other on someone else. Asking questions is something authentic leaders do, because they want to learn and they value the perspectives others have. Authentic leaders know what they don’t know, so they seek input from others.
5. Avoid the pull of the dark side, which is abandoning who you are to be something your environment is trying to shape you into. This isn’t external conformity that still frees us to be who we are on the inside. It is when we allow our true self to be suppressed or morphed into someone we don’t recognize. Then the most important form of authenticity is lost, our authentic self.
Like the medieval “hallmark,” which was usually a stylized crown stamped into either silver or gold at a royal metallurgical hall to authenticate its purity, people look for the hallmark on our life as well. That little 14K or 18K on our life and work is something people expect, and is a sign of an ethical capitalist.