Brilliant sky, searing sun and red horizon.

Glittering water, floral profusion, waterbirds, and fish.

These are both the authentic desert.

I started school in the arid and isolated little town of Woomera in South Australia.  While living there, my dad built a boat. And it also happened that Lake Koolimilka filled up when she was ready to ride. Her maiden voyage was over the red sands. I rode the tide of a desert.


Authenticity has been in the limelight as a leadership concept for a while. It has brought rich messages of openness and truth. Of responding reflectively and with calm honesty across one’s full emotional spectrum. These messages have been valuable for interaction amongst us all. They support communication in the home – between partners, children, family. They support connection with friends. They support shared meaning and connection across our similarities and our differences in work and all else.

In 2020 I had opportunity, through Women’s Leadership Australia, to participate in a conversation supporting women’s leadership. Our topic was ‘The Authenticity Paradox’. This term was coined in 2015 by Professor Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School. She was articulating a perplexity she had observed in the burgeoning ‘authenticity movement’.

Professor Ibarra noted that some people she worked with conceptualized authenticity in a way that tightened their adherence to their own concept of self. They understood authenticity as reason to not adapt, not grow, not be other-minded. She saw that the term ‘authenticity’ opened an interpretation of ‘true to self’ that could shut-down other qualities of leadership and personal development which underpin living generously.

This strikes me as living parched; when the waters of possibility and opportunity are calling forth the flowers, the fruit and the fish.

But of course, one’s present state is authentic. It is the authentic platform representing that which is and has been. And it is also the authentic springboard from which a glittering expanse and bringing-forth might bound, unforced. As Carl Jung wrote, ‘The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are’.

The authentic state is a morphing, circling, emerging, reaching, retracting, complexity of thoughts and experiences, skills and hopes. It can be surprised. It can be hurt. It can be healed and strengthened. And all of this is threaded, intertwined, and sometimes even mashed together with opportunities that come and go.

Professor Herminia Ibarra called it out – a paradox.

Authenticity Paradox

Para: ‘on the side’ or ‘side-by-side’. Dox: ‘beliefs’.

The paradox of authenticity lies in our beliefs about the self that ‘is’ now …held side-by-side with the self that is ‘in potential’ – to which we might aspire.

When we can hold our ‘status quo authenticity’ side-by-side with our ‘emerging authenticity’, we honour what has been and invite what can be. The desert can bloom.

In observing the paradoxes of his field, physicist Neils Bohr wrote, “the opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.”

Some people have a comfortable (and comforting) way of meeting and being with the paradoxical complexities of living. They can hold challenging apparent opposites together as companion truths. They hold and contain the discomfort of uncertainty with steadiness, and transform it to understanding that yields hope and opens pathways.

Finding Value in Discomfort

There is a compelling and attractive grace in such people. It is expansive and inspiring. They show, as author Parker J. Palmer put it, that it is possible to hold the tensions of paradox. To not rush to alleviate personal discomfort, but rather to find value in the discomfort as part of the passage to a greater excellence. They engage with paradox in a way that supports calm, wisdom, and circumspection. They are open and non-blaming. They foster trust.

In our complex present, and in the future, these qualities are our collective necessity and our personal sustenance.

Valuing paradoxical complexity with openness and curiosity might be the rains on life’s deserts. Connected conversation, the sands that soak in the rains. These conversations ground our sense of self and purpose. They cause community and creativity to spring forth like the flowers, the fruit and the fish, revealing the flourishing that lies just beneath the surface of each of us.

We are. We can also be.

Deserts are unyielding landscapes of searing difficulty. And they also run and flow and bloom. I know this. I once stood upon a little ship and rode the tide of a desert.

A version of this article first appeared in The Hobart Mercury’s TasWeekend Magazine in October 2020.