Public figures and authenticity

Public figures and authenticity

I did not intend to let so much time go by without posting, but the travel, teaching and speaking schedule of the past 10 days has been as hectic as any I can ever remember. So, on the plane between Moscow and Paris today, I began what I thought would be a blog post about politics and authenticity. Many people have asked me in my seminars recently to give examples of authentic politicians in office today.  I am hard pressed to do so, as I believe that modern politics is more about following public opinion than about truly shaping it.

Modern politicians seem unwilling to take positions that might offend anyone. As such, they hesitate to express their true nature, and they do not take authentic stands based on who they are and what they believe. When I was in the United States ten days ago, I was struck by number of people who said that neither of the two presidential candidates—Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—seems able to define himself around a few clear core principles.

Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of social media in our society. Of course, it is well known that I am a fan of social media, having written extensively about it for the past several years. And, I do believe that there are far more advantages than disadvantages to the current social media craze, advantages such as more connections between people, more ways for companies to listen, more engagement with user communities, more transparency, and more voice for individuals.

At the same time, society’s love affair with social media has its dangers, particularly with respect to public officials. With so much data available to political figures, along with their advisors and “spin doctors”, we may be creating a political class that seeks to follow public opinion, rather than to shape it.

In fact, we are increasingly becoming a society of “followers”. We follow blogs, polls and tweets to see what people are thinking. In times past, elected officials guided public policy, inspiring the populace with their stories of vision for society. They spoke from the heart about things they truly cared about, and they proposed change based on their fundamental beliefs. We knew who they were and what they stood for.

Unfortunately, such authentic discourse seems to happen with far less frequency in the age of social media.

As a common citizen, and also as a student of leadership, I am concerned by this growing tendency to follow opinion rather than shape it. If everyone is following, then who is leading? And, this observation applies not only to politicians, but also to anyone who is closely watched in our society. It seems that authenticity is less and less possible these days for many public figures.

Consider the case of Laurent Blanc, coach of France’s national football team (soccer to US readers). Blanc took the position after a disastrous World Cup 2010, when France was eliminated in the first round, failing to win any of its group matches. Perhaps more worrisome than the result itself, though, was the behavior of the French group, who argued with each other and with their coach, organized a strike, and generally, by world consensus, acted like a bunch of spoiled children.

In preparation and qualifying matches for this year’s European Cup, it appeared that the team’s attitude and performance were improving. However, after elimination last week in a quarterfinal match with Spain, some of the French players conducted themselves with an “appalling” lack of maturity, according to local commentators and the press. The worst event was midfielder Samir Nasri’s altercation with a journalist from the national press agency (Agence France Presse). Nasri’s language in the incident was shockingly crude and violent.

For the past two days (I am writing on June 25), the general public has been abuzz with reactions. Several sports commentators and political officials have called for a lifetime ban from the French team, citing conduct that is embarrassing to the team and to the nation. On Twitter and in the blogs, numerous individuals have talked of national “shame”, and relatively few have defended Nasri.

Each day, the sports daily newspaper L’Equipe polls its readers for opinions on some question in the news. Today, the question is “What should be done with Nasri?” The alternatives are do nothing, give him a temporary (3 to 6 game) suspension, or banish him forever from the team. When I looked this afternoon, the running tally on the paper’s website showed an overwhelming tendency to want to ban him for life.

I should make it clear that my intent in telling this story is not to do a post about football or to take a position on this incident. Rather, it is to point out the difficulty of being authentic for anyone in the public eye today. Just as politicians running for office follow the polls, the tweets and the blogs to get a sense for public opinion, I am sure that Blanc’s advisors will tell him how the populace feels, as well as what the bloggers and social sites are saying.

According to the French newspapers and websites, it is not certain that Blanc will remain as coach of the French side. In any case, and whoever the next person in charge will be, we should watch the handling of the present situation closely, as it provides an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate true leadership.

Whatever the coach decides to do about Nasri, recent events afford him an opening to truly put his mark on the group, and to define his vision for the future. We should look to see if he manages to take a stand, and to send a clear message about his core beliefs, rather than “follow” public opinion.

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