I am a bit ashamed to admit it, but when I saw the video of blind and autistic America’s Got Talent contestant Kodi Lee my first reaction was to question its authenticity. Reality TV talent shows like American Idol and AGT are infamous for hipping up the drama brewing in the lives of contestants in order to play with our emotions. It seems like the greater the crisis, the more heartbreaking the story, the more sympathy we develop for contestants (an effect that results in longer viewership). And of course, the greater the handicap, the greater the standing ovation from the studio audience and guaranteed tears from my wife (yeah you got me, I mean me).
So, this is how I assumed things would go. Kodi (loving mom standing next to him) would tell us of his physical impediments and how, at the tender age of 22, his blindness and autism make it impossible for someone with his conditions to live a normal life, much less perform in a talent show. He would then give us a mind-blowing performance that earned him a Golden Buzzer… queue the tear-jerking music and the river of tears from the judges. Then later that night while watching TMZ we would all learn to our horror that Kodi Lee is in actuality a scam artist from Reno named Pete Kowalski. Damn it Pete, you totally got us!
That was not the case. Kodi Lee is the real deal and a genuine example of breaking stereotypes. As Yahoo Entertainment reports it “Kodi Lee has a history of bringing down the house” with his extraordinary performances long before AGT. In his national (now international) performance he showed us the authenticity of his musical gift. Kodi’s talent is genuine and inspirational to people with and without disabilities.
Sure, you can try to get your audience to believe you are the real thing through gimmicks, but eventually, the educated viewer will find you out. Authenticity is always verified based on true facts (not hype) and the essential features that compose it (basis on fact, credentials, certified ability) should never be overlooked. We don’t have an equivalent of TMZ in the business world, but considering how easy it is for anyone to proclaim themselves an expert or twist numbers to declare themselves a best-selling author, world authority, or guru, maybe there should be. In part, this lack of authenticity comes from thinking that exaggerating your credentials is an acceptable marketing strategy for standing out above millions of other people with similar talent. However, it is also the result of people overlooking the occurrence rather than facing it and calling it out with public disfavor. It is, sadly, also the result of our fear of being vulnerable.
Honoring the advice I am sharing about being authentic, I have to confess my own falling into this trap. As soon as I became successful as an executive I got my first call to speak at a conference. Then another. Soon after I put the description of “speaker” on my LinkedIn profile. Then “keynote” speaker. Then someone decided to introduce me as an “expert” and I made the mistake of not only believing it but resting on my impermanent laurels to proclaim my abilities. But soon after having a near-fatal stroke in 2018 I began to reevaluate authenticity in my personal and professional life. What I learned is that authenticity is not something you “apply” to your life; It is who you truly are. Authenticity is what results from where you spend your efforts and how those efforts shape you as a human being. By the way that human being is not always perfect but still has amazing things to offer regardless of your status as an author or speaker or Maharaja of your chosen field. Brené Brown has become one of my favorite authors since I began my new journey. She writes, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
In what has been coined the Era of Business Posers, we have an opportunity to reverse the trend by being genuine. When you dispense with over-inflated credentials you give yourselves the opportunity to assess your true skills and grow in the knowledge that makes you an expert organically, and best of all you do so through the support of those who believe in who you can become.