“I was a rock star in the 80s,” my seatmate told me on a short flight to Baltimore years ago. He looked the part--tall, English accent, 80’s shag haircut.
He wasn’t bragging--I had asked him how things were going and he told me he played lead guitar for The Outfield. “We were big for a while in the 80s.”
During the 80s I had three little kids and I wasn’t actively tracking emerging rock music, so I confessed that I didn’t know The Outfield, which surprised him. I asked about their biggest hit, and he said it was a song he wrote called “Your Love” which nearly reached the top of the charts in 1986. You probably know the song as it has been covered hundreds of times since then and it still gets radio play on classic rock stations, but I didn’t know it by name. So he immediately did what any self-respecting rock star would do—he started singing the song for me. I recognized it (as did most of the people sitting around us) and to this day everytime I hear that song I remember my brief encounter with authentic 80s rock star John Spinks.
The Outfield (John Spinks, Alan Jackman, Tony Lewis)
I was thinking of that incident again recently while watching election coverage and ruminating about personal authenticity, which experts define as:
…being true and honest with oneself and others, having a credibility in one’s words and behavior, and an absence of pretense.
On one level, Spinks’ serenade on the plane was intended to help me recognize his hit song. On another level, it was offered to provide support for his rock star story. He was “walking the walk”, i.e., establishing credibility by demonstrating his ability to do something he claimed he could do or had done. Walking the walk used to be an essential part of developing character and reputation, of becoming authentic.
When I was growing up, if someone in my social circles claimed they could do something, it was a given that they would have to prove they could actually do it, not just talk about it. It really didn’t matter what it was--dribbling left-handed, juggling, doing a cartwheel, throwing a curve ball, naming the presidents—nobody got the benefit of the doubt. So the accountability model was very clear: if you said you could, and it turned out you couldn’t, you were going to experience social and reputational penalties.
When I entered the corporate workplace, however, I learned that in my industry being willing and able to walk the walk wasn’t quite as culturally significant as it had been in my earlier life. Folks who couldn’t walk very well, but who were accomplished at talking about the mechanics of walking, or at recounting the history of walking, or at criticizing how other people were walking, were recognized and rewarded as if they were the best walkers ever. That puzzled me, but I figured either the non-walkers had never experienced the accountability model I had grown up with, or they had forgotten about it as they aged. So many folks who were comfortable just talking the walk and being inauthentic--misrepresenting their skill levels and exaggerating their accomplishments—yet they weren’t being called on it.
How does a workplace thrive without authenticity, without accountability, and without an operating culture that values folks who walk the walk more than those who talk the walk? Why do people remain in such a workplace? Well, it’s socially awkward and politically incorrect in most corporate work situations simply to call out exaggerators and demand they demonstrate the proficiency they are claiming, particularly if the exaggerator happens to be a powerful senior leader. And leadership failure contributes significantly to the problem since tone is set at the top and leaders set the standard for what is tolerated in the work environment. Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker of Indiana State University describe it this way:
The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.
Which means if a leader is unwilling or unable to demand authenticity, to insist that the accountability model be an integral part of the workplace culture, it probably won’t be. How do you deal with a culture like that? Depending on how pervasive, inequitable and offensive the behavior is, and how important it is to you, you generally have three choices: tolerate it, change it, or leave it behind.
Whether it was Aesop or Lou Holtz who told us “After all is said and done, more is said than done,” embellishment is human nature and we all know it is often much easier to talk about doing something than it is to do it. Call me sentimental, but I remember life being simpler and fairer when authenticity and character were important and accountability meant doing what you said you would (or could) do. But let’s leave the final word on authenticity to Muhammad Ali, who while he didn’t hesitate to talk about what he could do (“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest”) or how he felt about it (“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am") certainly did see a big difference between talking and doing:
Braggin' is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.