By Jaya Saxena • September 22, 2017•Features, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law
“I define authenticity as the practice of consistently choosing to know, embrace, and be who we are as often as possible.”
Ritu Bhasin is a global leadership and inclusion expert. Over the years, I’ve learned more about her work and have heard her speak on numerous occasions. I’ve developed a strong appreciation for her interesting and entrepreneurial career path, thought leadership, and dynamic presence. This blog post captures a conversation I had with her several months ago. Through this post, you’ll learn more about Ritu and her forthcoming book, The Authenticity Principle, which will be released on October 5, 2017. While authenticity seems to be a buzzword these days, Ritu offers a unique perspective that connects authenticity to inclusion, one of the topics of discussion in this piece.
How did you get to where you are today? It’s not a traditional legal path. Tell me more about your journey.
My parents immigrated from India. We’re Punjabi and we’re Sikh, in particular. They talked very openly about their experiences with racism and oppression. In South Asian culture, there’s also a lot of dialogue about women and women’s rights – or the lack of women’s rights. So I grew up with a strong commitment to speaking out and dealing with the impact of racism and sexism. Then, I had my own firsthand experience with it growing up in a very homogeneous, affluent neighborhood outside of Toronto. We were not affluent; we were very middle class so it was a stretch for us to move there.
I grew up with this commitment to social justice, and decided to pursue law. I didn’t know what it meant to be a lawyer and, when I started law school in 1997, I had never even met a lawyer. I knew that it would help me to advocate in the trenches, which is what I wanted to do.
I loved law school from a learning perspective. I did well in law school and got sucked into Big Law, which is where I started my career. I knew instantly that I hated Big Law. I didn’t like the practice of law, and I ended up leaving it very quickly. I didn’t want to leave the legal profession so I transitioned into a legal talent management role as the Director of Legal Talent for a large Canadian firm based out of Toronto, and I worked on managing summer associates. It was awesome but, at the same time, I felt vacant and disconnected from myself and I didn’t know why.
In my fifth or sixth year in that role, I took a three-month sabbatical. I did two things that were life changing. I applied for an Executive MBA because I knew I wanted to make a career change, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I went to India for two months where I did my first yoga teacher training not thinking I would become a yoga teacher, but wanting to deepen my practice. I came back from that trip with a different lens and lease on life. The trip, combined with the Executive MBA program, was the catalyst for me leaving my job. I launched my own consulting firm, which I’ve now been running for six years.
You’ve previously described yourself as an Authenticity Advocate. What does this mean to you?
I’m writing a book about it, which is part of my commitment to encouraging other people to live and lead and be as authentic as possible as much as possible. It stems not only from my personal experiences, but also from my deep leadership and inclusion work over the last several years, and from my firsthand research. I have learned that when we know who we are, embrace who we are, and be who we are as much as possible, we live better. We have more joy. My commitment to being an Authenticity Advocate is all about me on an individual level bringing that truth and that spirit to how I act and interact with other people, which means being quite candid and open about who I am even in the face of judgment, and also teaching people about how to do this themselves and how to encourage others to do the same.
Tell me more about your forthcoming book, The Authenticity Principle.
Over the last several years, I have been teaching, public speaking, and coaching leaders and emerging professionals about how to be better at leading and how to be more inclusive. Through my inclusion work, which is my area of expertise, I learned that authenticity is a key pillar of being inclusive. What we’re essentially saying when we’re truly cultivating inclusion is: be all of who you are including your differences, which means be authentic. If we want to be more inclusive in our interactions and we want to build more inclusive work environments, we must cultivate authenticity, which means we must encourage people to be who they are as much as possible and leverage their differences.
Oftentimes, women and people who are diverse – people of color, people from the LGBT community, millenials, etc. – feel like they have to change to fit in, to get ahead, to be accepted, to belong. That was my story. I learned how to be white, how to behave more like a man, and how to act as though I grew up affluent. I acted like I was happy all the time and I was actually feeling sadness and insecurity in order to be accepted. And my story is not unique; it’s the story of most people I have met and worked with who feel different and the differences are viewed as bad or they’re made to feel bad because of their differences. In doing this work and seeing these patterns, I was inspired by the idea that the world would be a better place, people’s personal lives would be better, and the way in which we lead would be better if we could do a better job of being who we are as much as possible.
I believe authenticity is contagious. For example, when I show you my vulnerabilities or insecurities and share openly, you’re more likely to do that too. If I show up and I mask, perform, or cover who I am, you’ll likely do the same. We rob each other of the experiences of having that deeper connection that comes with being authentic. When I left Big Law to be an entrepreneur and start my consulting practice, I had the opportunity to be whoever I wanted to be.
To learn more about others experiences with living and leading authentically, I interviewed more than 50 leaders from around the world. I pulled together the data from those interviews, and my research and experience coaching hundreds of people, to teach people about the Authenticity Principle.
The Authenticity Principle builds on the definition of authenticity, which I have set out in the book. Simply put, the Authenticity Principle is all about when we choose to know, embrace, and be who we are as often as possible, we feel better about ourselves, we bring this spirit to our interactions and we invite others to do the same. And, from a leadership perspective, leaders who live and lead in accordance with the Authenticity Principle help to create a more empowered, engaged, and inclusive organization.
One idea that is central to the Authenticity Principle is the Three Selves concept, which is a continuum of experiences when it comes to behaving authentically. Instead of looking at authenticity as binary in that you are either authentic or inauthentic, the Three Selves concept takes into account the power of choice in how we live.
- We can choose to be our Authentic Self, which is who we choose to be if there are no consequences for our actions, and this feels the most empowering.
- Our Adapted Self is who we are when we willingly choose to alter our behavior from how our Authentic Self would act. Our Adapted Self is still authentic and empowering in that we are choosing to be adaptive.
- Finally, the Performing Self is who we show up as when we feel like we can’t be ourselves and, instead, must conform or mask who we are. This is the most disempowering.
At its core, the Authenticity Principle is about the power of choice in how you live.
Last year, you wrote an article about how Race is a critical piece of the authenticity dialogue that is missing. Do you think it can be more difficult for people of color to live more authentically and, if so, why?
People of color are often taught that if you want to get ahead or be accepted, you have to change the way you behave. For a lot of us, we constantly experience blind spots – stereotypes, judgments, forms of oppression, marginalization - and to navigate that, we often minimize or we cover. We disassociate. “That’s not me. I’m not different.” We may also hide aspects of who we are, or come to believe the negative messaging - the internalization of bias or stereotype threat. “The way I am is wrong and bad so I should change or hide who I am.” I hear these stories all the time.
Do you feel like you’ve become more empowered in your own life because you’re able to lead a more authentic life?
Authenticity, to me, is the ticket to being empowered. A lot of us have absorbed messages that we are less worthy and that there’s something wrong with us so we hold back and we don’t speak or challenge. The solution must be empowerment, which means feeling beautiful and being who you are as much as possible.
You’ve said that authenticity is one of the key core competencies for professional and personal leadership. What are some ways we can instill this in law students and lawyers?
Quite simply put, I think we just start teaching it. It must be infused with the spirit of teaching people how to better know who they are. There are three key components to the Authenticity Principle: 1) Know yourself; 2) Embrace yourself; and 3) Be yourself. Knowing yourself is engaging in deep self-reflection so that you have a better understanding of who you are. Embracing yourself is about feeling comfortable with who you are, which means working to address self limiting beliefs that hold you back from your success and your joy. Being yourself is the actual act of practicing it. We need to teach these components consistently across all of our teaching areas, and teachers, staff, administrators, counselors all need to model the behavior.
Takeaway #1: Authenticity is a key pillar of being inclusive. If we want to be more inclusive in our interactions and build more inclusive work environments, we must cultivate authenticity.
Takeaway #2: Authenticity is contagious. When I show you my vulnerabilities or insecurities and share openly, you’re more likely to do that too.
Takeaway #3: The Authenticity Principle is all about when we choose to know, embrace, and be who we are as often as possible, we feel better about ourselves, we bring a spirit to interactions and invite others to do the same.
Takeaway #4: At its core, the Authenticity Principle is about the power of choice in how you live. The Three Selves concept is a continuum of experiences when it comes to behaving authentically. In any given moment, we can choose to be our Authentic Self, which is the most empowering, our Adapted Self, or our Performing Self, which is disempowering.
Takeaway #5: Authenticity is the ticket to being empowered.
Takeaway #6: Authenticity is a key core competency for professional and personal leadership, and must be taught to law students and lawyers. Teachers, staff, administrators, and counselors also need to model the behavior.
Call to Action
My conversation with Ritu Bhasin has inspired me to live a more authentic life, and I hope this post inspires you to do the same. That is my call to action for each of you: let’s strive to live and lead authentically so that we can experience more joy, promote inclusivity, and feel empowered.
To check out some of my other Ms. JD posts about discovering one's authentic professional self, click here!