Is "Authenticity" A Meaningful Benchmark for Election 2016 Candidates?

"Authenticity" is a huge buzzword in this election cycle. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both lauded for it, while Hillary Clinton is derided for her perceived lack of it. Taking stock of a candidate's character should play a critical role in this election. But "authenticity," standing alone, tells us nothing about whether a person has the integrity and requisite leadership qualities to be president. There are just as many authentic jackasses as there are authentic heroes.

Let's start with the fact that authenticity is easily misperceived. Sociopaths and narcissists are both expert at falsely communicating it for different reasons. Sociopaths are notoriously good at faking sincerity. Think of Bernie Madoff's wild success. Since conscience plays no role for sociopaths, lies roll effortlessly off of the tongue.

Similarly, narcissists are great at conveying authenticity. They communicate confidence and sincerity about what they are saying in the moment even if it is entirely the opposite of what they were saying in the moment just prior. The narcissist sincerely believes that everything they say and do is pure gold.

Unfortunately, research, as well as common sense observation, suggests that sociopaths and narcissists are overrepresented in the world of politics. Accordingly, we have to be particularly attuned to perception versus reality when we view a politician as "authentic."

While gauging authenticity is difficult, the more fundamental problem is that authenticity is a woefully inadequate barometer of virtue or ability. The question should not be whether someone is authentic, but rather who he "authentically" is. You can be authentically confident, tough, honest, ethical, and compassionate. Or you can be an authentic racist, an authentic bully, or an authentic fool.

Even assuming a solid moral compass, complete authenticity in every situation is not a desirable quality in a president. In fact, it would be a disaster. We have all known people with no filter. While they may be entertaining at a dinner party, we would not enlist them in sensitive conversations and negotiations. We want leaders who can be strategic and diplomatic, when required. Strategy sometimes involves holding back or misdirection. Diplomacy requires the ability to make sensitive judgment calls and, often, to hold your cards close to your chest. We also need leaders who can build the alliances and coalitions required to get things done. This cannot be accomplished with either rigid idealism or bullying. It requires persuasive leadership and strategic compromises. Our Constitution is the result of such vision and compromise. There is virtually no chance of successfully executing on strategy and building alliances and coalitions if complete uncensored and unrestrained "authenticity" is the rule.

Don't get me wrong. It is no wonder that we hunger for something genuine when so much of politics and government, has devolved into a toxic miasma of moneyed interests, self-interest, celebrity, cynicism, hunger for power, superficial sound bites, hidden agendas, and hypocrisy. The focus on character in this election cycle is a strong and positive sign that people want, and will demand, fundamental change in the operation of our government. It is encouraging that this quest for radical change is largely led by working and middle class Americans who have suffered some of the worst effects of the dysfunction of our political institutions, and millennials who will shape the future landscape of our political life.

But simply trying to assess whether someone is "authentic" is not going to do the trick. Policy positions are critically important. Although without more, they can be as ephemeral as wind direction. Accordingly, leadership skills and the commitment to carry them forward are equally significant. Most importantly, the dominant motivation cannot be ego or power; it must be a driving desire to make a positive difference. This must be judged by actions over time rather than words.