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Authentic Politics -- What is That?

09/09/2015 02:34 pm 14:34:28 | Updated Sep 09, 2015

All political candidates dissemble. Indeed, all people do. A degree of deception is required in order to be civil. "It was a pleasure to meet you," is often just a way to gracefully exit a conversation.

But at what point does a political candidate take deception too far?

In Hillary Clinton's case, that is a critical question. Andrea Mitchell told Clinton she has an authenticity problem. S.A. Miller of the Washington Times described Clinton's "authenticity gap" as a major issue for her coming up to the New Hampshire primary.

What does it mean to be authentic, particularly an authentic politician? The term may seem an oxymoron. Politics by nature is about strategy, knowing what to say when, in what way, and to whom. Where is the room for authenticity? It isn't there if we define authenticity as being consistent or one-dimensional.

I remember an HR director called to ask me about a former Executive MBA student. They were thinking about hiring her as CFO because of her impressive resume. At one point the HR director said, "It's known that she can be direct at times." I'd heard this before pertaining to women. "Are you looking for a CFO who is not capable of being direct?" I asked. The HR director chuckled. The former student was hired.

Unless circumstances remain static, we must adjust and grow. Otherwise, what we may think is admirable authenticity is actually perilous predictability. A predictable leader is a manageable one, easily maneuvered. That's scary in a president.

As Deborah Tannen has argued, women's behaviors are more "marked," especially in a predominantly male arena. Women's choices of clothing, hairstyle, voice, and actions are noted more than those of men. Nearly everything matters because nearly everything is meaningful. Managing all behaviors to avoid the wrong impression fosters a stilted persona. It's an authenticity Catch-22.

So what does Clinton need to do? Most importantly, she needs to avoid serving two masters seen by most people as a reason for distrust. While authenticity shouldn't require rigid consistency, it suffers when two positions are seen as completely opposed and a candidate supports both. Are you with rich bankers or an advocate for the poor and middle class? Where's the priority? Elizabeth Warren is clear on this. She doesn't hate bankers; you just sense that she knows where she stands even when they're all around her. A good part of authenticity is having your priorities straight.

Bernie Sanders gets high marks for being forthright. He knows what he stands for and tells you. Clinton could take a page from his playbook. It's not too late, but time is running thin.

Mostly, it's important to realize that authenticity doesn't mean revealing the same side of one's character all the time. Clinton went down that road putting experience front-and-center the last time she ran for president. It backfired when the opposition associated experience with the status quo.

Attribution research tells us that people find occasional surprises and even weaknesses in others more interesting than perfection or the same old, same old. We like to see people grappling with issues we grapple with ourselves. That doesn't mean pretending to have lived the same hardships and faced the same dilemmas, but certainly and genuinely to have visited.

The Clinton campaign needs to become less about her and more about what people care about. That's a tall order with reporters like Andrea Mitchell on your tail everywhere you turn. But a "let's-talk-about-what-matters-to-real-people" approach could go a long way.

"I've struggled with this," is a phrase we should hear more often from candidates. Life, after all, is a struggle, especially if you're living an authentic one.

Kathleen also blogs here.

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