Learning to Be Authentic
Updated: Feb 16
February is a month when we celebrate former presidents, Black History and… love. While we largely rely on schools to educate our children on two of these subjects, kids learn about love in just about every interaction they have, like it or not. Love is foundational to one’s identity, and a great struggle many parents face is the balance between encouraging our kids to embrace self-love and acceptance without meddling. What adult doesn’t wish they could go back in time to have a heart to heart with their adolescent self and say, “Just stop worrying about what others think. You are awesome the way you are!” I was well into adulthood before I was confident enough to live more authentically, causing me to wonder: is there a way we can help children figure this out earlier?
Coming of age in the 1980s, I don’t think the word authentic was used in terms of describing much more than the 14 carat gold chains sold at the mall. Certainly, it wasn’t applied to people, and in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, I was much more concerned with fitting in, than with being “authentic.” I also had parents who liked to identify my siblings and me based on our grades, our friends and our favorite activities. As a teenager who expended as much energy on things like Student Council as I did on my hair, I drove my parents crazy. I did not fit the mold they had in mind for me, and there was no Brene Brown to help them, and me, to love and accept who I was becoming.
The topic of living an authentic life may not be what you would expect to be a cornerstone of the curriculum at a leading business school. But at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, it is. A few years ago I had the privilege of working alongside leading management thinkers when I was hired to help reshape the student experience for Kellogg’s Evening and Weekend MBA program. We quickly determined that developing and growing these students as leaders should be foundational to the Kellogg experience. As Dr. Paul Corona, Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management said of his approach to teaching, “I am really trying to help people be more fulfilled.”
Dr. Corona joined Northwestern University in 2002 as Director of Learning & Organizational Development, and within a few years found he was equally at home in the classroom, helping students hone their leadership styles. When discussing the topic of learning to become our authentic selves, Dr. Corona shared that he analyzed serious scholarly research from the likes of Oxford and Harvard Medical School to inform his leadership coaching. What Dr. Corona found was that true happiness comes from the quality of our relationships. Not from the external measures of success like fame, fortune and other achievements. He went on to say that, “We really need to invest in relationships to be fulfilled in life.”
Dr. Corona’s professional and personal missions clearly intersect and led to his development of a system called “Lee’s Three Habits,” a philosophy as relevant to parents as it is to executives. “Instead of doing what parents instinctually do: tell, talk and take, I encourage them to ask, listen and give.” He went on to say, “It may feel a little unnatural at times, our instinct is to tell them (kids) what to do and give advice. I remember like it was yesterday. being told what to do. I rejected most of what I was told.”
He knows firsthand the importance of asking and listening to help kids feel supported and validated. Dr. Corona is a parent to seventeen and nineteen-year-old daughters who, “Grew up with social media everywhere.” When engaging with them, “We try to be with each other, and if we can’t due to something else that’s pressing, I ask them to go use your phone in the other room.” In addition to focused engagement, he openly discusses ways to combat having a digital existence that is purely superficial. He encourages his kids to use social media in a better way, using it as a platform for asking, listening and giving as well. “Rather than being a tool for the self-absorbed, I stress the importance of being authentic, and courteous, in these interactions as well.”
Learning self-acceptance while finding a community is a universal struggle, particularly for adolescents. As Rosalind Wiseman writes in her 2014 book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, “We all want to feel a sense of belonging. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s fundamental to the human experience.” And as painful as it is to watch our kids make mistakes, that is also fundamental to the human experience. As Dr. Corona says, “There’s a lot we can do to be more balanced as parents. We should be ethical, do our best, and then we need to let go.”
Graduation Day in 1987, Lafayette Senior High School