Why It Matters That ‘Authentic’ Was the Word of 2023

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I’m sure it came as little surprise to many that Merriam-Webster announced in late November that “authentic” was its annual “word of the year,” meaning it was a high-volume dictionary look-up and a concept that people were clearly thinking and writing about.

According to Merriam-Webster, authentic has a number of meanings, including “not false or imitation,” a synonym of real and actual; and also “true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.”

Building trust in the age of AI

Clearly, the rise of artificial intelligence led people to look up the word, and some of that was buttressed by celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Prince Harry promoting the importance of being their authentic selves.

“The rise of AI helped drive interest in the word,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large said in announcing the news. “The line between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ has become increasingly blurred. As a result, in social media and marketing, authentic has become the gold standard for building trust.” In a separate interview with the Associated Press, Sokolowski said the quest for truth is ever-present in society today.

“Can we trust whether a student wrote this paper? Can we trust whether a politician made this statement? We don’t always trust what we see anymore,” Sokolowski said. “We sometimes don’t believe our own eyes or our own ears. We are now recognizing that authenticity is a performance itself.”

Personally, I’m thrilled to see authenticity getting its time in the limelight. I’ve been a big fan of the pursuit of authenticity in leadership for years, so much so that the quest for authenticity was a key theme behind my book, “Heart First.” I’ve defined Heart First leadership as leading with authenticity, empathy and humanity.

People’s understanding of authenticity naturally varies quite a bit, which is what drives so many people to search for official definitions. For some, authenticity has been misused almost as a weapon, with the idea that expressing an “authentic” opinion gives leaders an excuse to be painfully blunt, rude or closed off to different points of view.

Respectful authenticity

At its core, I believe respectful authenticity is what’s most important for leaders. This is about being true to yourself and acting in ways that are consistent with your values. And in today’s era — when people are clearly searching for truth and meaning — respectful authenticity has never been more important.

In a nutshell, here are the top three components I use to define what’s meant by respectful authenticity in leadership. I believe these components not only make for great leadership, but are also the keys to building a trusting and engaged workforce.

  • Know yourself. Reflect on what’s most important to you, who you are today and what you value. Truly understanding this helps you better relate to others and focus on building more valuable relationships with your team.
  • Be your best self. Walk the talk. Ensure that you are acting in ways that are in sync with your values instead of simply trying to please people or get something from others.
  • Have quiet courage as you relate to others. Respectful authenticity is about the constant process of being truthful — first with yourself and then with others. This is about saying the things that need to be said but in a kind and respectful way.

The crucial piece I've learned about the quest for authentic leadership is that it’s an ongoing journey. As leaders, we are challenged all the time to put on masks rather than be who we really are. 

What I’ve learned is that the work of being real — with ourselves and our teams — is not only more fulfilling, but a true game-changer in building a stronger team culture. 

Return to Current Issue Writing & Storytelling | February 2024
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