Authenticity has many faces…
Although I’ve raised a red flag about using biography as authenticity in presidential campaign spin, there’s another way to look at authenticity and biography. When people have had extraordinary or painful experiences, and are willing to share those stories in order to make the world better, biography and authenticity overlap in a teachable moment.
Holocaust Survivors Speak: Never Forget, Never Let it Happen Again…
In the Washington Post this week, Stefanie Dazio profiled five Holocaust survivors who spoke to seventh graders at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring.
Bayer told of how he was just weeks from turning 17 when the Germans invaded Poland. He lived through the ghetto, a labor camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, experimental surgery, death marches and several escape attempts, including one in which he was shot in the leg.
He had been held for six months when he finally got away. It was January 1945, and he found himself hiding in the woods near Auschwitz-Birkenau with two Russian prisoners, living on margarine and snow. Starving, they left the woods after six days, taking a chance. They walked out to find that the Soviets had liberated the camp. “A Russian picked me up and carried me like a sack of potatoes,” he said.
Seventh-grader Simon Gershunskiy, 12, of Rockville said he was moved by Bayer’s speech. “The way that he speaks, because he’s experienced such horrors, it can really touch you,” Simon said. “It was something that I’m very much going to remember,” he said.
With horrific moments in history, remembering is very important. The courage to repeat the story so young people can realize that history is real life is courageous leadership.
Another kind of courage: coming out of the closet in plain sight
Another leader-by-sharing is Ellen Degeneris, comedian, actor and talk show host. She was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for this week.
DeGeneres famously came out as gay on her sitcom, Ellen, in 1997. “It was the right thing for me to do … it happened to help a lot of people and it happened to cause a ruckus. That was a very fearful time in general for the gay community.”
According to USA Today, “DeGeneres’ wife, Portia de Rossi, accompanied her on the star-studded red carpet and sang her praises. “I am very, very proud of Ellen. She’s not only the funniest person I know, but she’s such a good person,” she said. Her favorite thing about DeGeneres? “I really like those little moments that only I recognize as her being her true self, when I can see she’s being vulnerable,” she said.
Stars on the red carpet agreed that DeGeneres’ kindness and contributions to the gay community set her apart. “I like to think that Ellen made Will & Grace possible,” star Sean Hayes said. “And Will & Grace made it possible for Modern Family. (DeGeneres’) fearlessness was her contribution and it continues to be.”
“She’s the one who went in with the machete and did it all by herself,” said Glee star Jane Lynch.”
Coming out when she did was a bold move. There was no guarantee she would have the career she has — that’s by sheer persistence, I expect. Being gay may be common, but being openly gay is far from ordinary, even today. Telling the truth about herself helped a lot of people accept themselves or family members, and learn to laugh at the complicated cultural polarization of sexual identity. It all started with those famous words shouted across the airport in her sitcom: “Mom, I’m gay!” Now she’s blazed a trail for openly gay entertainers by being herself. Not a bad testimony to authenticity and biography.
There are many reasons for leaders to share their stories, and many stories to share…
Just talking about yourself isn’t leadership; these two examples demonstrate how some people become leaders by taking a personal risk, and telling the truth about who they are. Technically, being truthful could make anyone more authentic — and being truthful in the face of unknown, probably negative consequences is authentic courage in the service of a vision.
I’m sure everyone knows someone who has shared a life story honestly, clearly and with purpose. Sometimes the sharing is small — one on one inspirations. Sometimes it’s limited to an organization or small community group. Other times, it’s national or international (you might argue that Malala Yousefzai represents this kind of authentic leader).
When our stories help us lead by example, when they’re used to inspire and teach and transform, they become authentic in the service of transformative leadership.