Authenticity is very much in the autumn air these days — especially with the presidential debates unfolding in front of tens of millions of people.
At a recent business dinner with a client who is a senior partner at a well-known accounting firm, for example, the topic was, not surprisingly, the presidential election. “They’re both liars,” said the executive of the two candidates. “You just can’t trust politicians today. They’ll say whatever they need to say to get elected.”
At my local hair salon a few days later, the conversation again turned to politics. One of the stylists shared a discussion she had had the evening before with her 20-year-old college student daughter. “Mom, tell me who to vote for,” the daughter asked. “I just can’t figure out what either candidate stands for, who they really are, or whether they’re honestly telling the truth.”
I’ve been hearing these questions — and doubts — from scores of American voters all over the country in recent months. And it’s sad and unfortunate, but the level of frustration and disengagement appears to be bubbling over, reaching a new — and often troubling — boiling point among citizens everywhere.
Indeed, disrespect for our politicians — which has been on the rise for several years — seems to have been exacerbated by the entrenched divisiveness and blame-and-spin game of this current campaign; watching the least productive and constructive Congress in recent memory over the past four years hasn’t helped bolster or boost connected trust with voters, either.
An important part of the problem is that 24/7 information overload makes it difficult for time-pressed voters to navigate the truth about President Obama’s first term, or his plans for another four years; the information morass also prevents us from deciphering Governor Romney’s real beliefs, genuine self, or plans for governance, should he reach the White House.
That said, as confusing as we find the “what” of each candidate’s strategy, both campaigns seem unwilling to talk about the “how.” How do they plan to get the work done for the American people? How will they work across the aisle in a bipartisan way to collaborate on behalf the electorate? And how will they begin to put us on the path to renewed prosperity?
The big question is whether the hyper-partisan, steroid-infused, real-time politics of the twenty-first century make it impossible for candidates to simply show up as who they are; in other words, to be authentic.
That’s what voters desperately want. Without fully expressing it, they’re yearning for candidates who are at ease with themselves, and comfortable within their own skin. So, being consistently genuine — even if they utter gaffes or espouse unpopular policies — is the only way that politicians can hope to regain and restore the public’s trust in the current climate of cynicism.
Warren Bennis, one of the sage gurus of leadership, has expressed this quite simply and sincerely. “People,” he says in his book, On Becoming a Leader, “begin to be leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.”
When our elected officials finally decide for themselves “how to be,” voters will clearly sense it — and then they’ll be far more likely to let go of their disappointment and disillusionment with the political system.
Betsy Myers is the Founding Director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. The author of Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You, she served as a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Prior to this appointment, Myers was the Executive Director of the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a senior official in the Clinton Administration, and a small-business entrepreneur.