The Problem with “Being” Authentic.

Being authentic is a trend that life coaches, media pundits, and marketing agencies tout like a commandment of new business branding. To be authentic sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean in practice? Striving to be authentic is pretty much an oxymoron.

The word authentic derives from the Greek word “authentes.” Back in the day, it meant acting from one’s own authority. It was a compound word combining “auto” (self) with “hentes” (doer or being). “Hentes” is derived from “sene” (to accomplish). Meanings of words change, especially from Ancient Greek to the present day, but what stands out is that authentic meant a combination of “being” with “action true to oneself.”

Authenticity matters in terms of action just as much as in being. Action reflects what a person or brand does in the world. Being signifies how they experience themselves and the world.

As Seth Godin wrote in his post about authenticity, Mother Theresa was filled with self-doubt. But she was an authentic saint because she always acted like one. Her being was in the world and full of self-doubt, but her actions were saint-like. Therefore, she was a saint.

We are complex people with all sorts of actions that we could choose to be authentic to. To which self shall we be true? The one who buys a carton of ice-cream and curls up on the couch at night with a feeling of lonely despair? The one who flips off a stranger that cuts us off on the road? The one who helps a mom with a stroller but ignores a homeless beggar?

Brands, entrepreneurs and artists are better to act in line with their mission, vision and their particular motive to make an impact in the world, rather than their fleeting feelings. Fear that accompanies the doing comes and goes. Actions tell a truer story about who you really are.

Acting with integrity, truthfulness and consistency is authentic action. People respect it because it is genuine. To be genuine means to be true to your origins, whether it makes you look and sound cool or not. W.L. Gore (makers of Gore-tex and other fabrics) acts with integrity in the long-term interest of its employees and doesn’t worry about staying trendy. Young influencers don’t brag about being affiliated with the Gore-tex. However, the company’s products, actions and culture have landed it on the Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since 1998. W.L. Gore’s authenticity is a combination of its trustworthy products (action) with a culture of respect and care (being).

People selling the “be authentic” model often sell the concept in tandem with achieving an ulterior motive, such as being a better leader, being more charming, being more attractive and so on. Authenticity should be divorced from gain or goal. Action born from one’s self is vulnerable, has integrity and stands on its own. That takes courage. So take action that includes your whole being and let go of the results. Trust that acting in line with your core values and beliefs is authentic expression. Eventually, people will notice and respect you deeply for it.

What action can you take today that reinforces your values and beliefs as an individual, brand, or company?