18 Mar 2021 16:13 IST

Why sportspersons need not be authentic

Source: Hotstar

Scrutinising inconsistencies can set unrealistic standards to abide by in their public life; limits growth

Sports and sportspersons occupy significant mind space, and are a source of pride. Sports teams are seen as focal points of national identity. Recent academic research in Monash University suggests that the performance of the Indian cricket team can impact the fortunes of the stock markets. This obsession with sports has manifested in several forms: the ubiquitous Barmy army and their brawls, the unfortunate stabbing of tennis player Monica Seles, the remorseless killing of Andres Escobar, the Colombian footballer who scored a self-goal in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Sportspersons are revered as demi-Gods, and their loyal fan base believes that Thou shalt not do any wrong.

In this era of intrusive social media, our sportspersons live under this continuous pressure of looking authentic in their words and actions lest their fans get offended. Now, this phenomenon sounds unreal but is sadly true.

Authenticity is overrated

I posit that sportspersons or leaders, in general, need not be authentic. We may not like to admit this, but world history is replete with instances where leaders have had hidden agendas and taken decisions belying their ideological stance. For instance, Gandhi, an ardent advocate of non-violence, argued in favour of unconditional support to Britain in the first World War. His follower, Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa, was no different. At times, he advocated peace and took a pro-business stance, whereas, at times, he unapologetically favoured violence and radical views. You look at any major world leader, be it Lincoln, Obama, or Lee Kuan Yew; the pattern is the same.

Similarly, in business, leadership at the top-level is often about creating synergies with other CXOs who might have been an aspirant of your position. So, it helps to conceal your true feelings to make those relationships work. Several CEOs seek the opinion of their CXOs and other organisational leaders on myriad issues irrespective of their view on the usefulness or relevance of the opinion or the person. The important business lesson here is that it made a difference to how these subordinates perceived their leader, and secondly, people felt valued and listened to and this benign act of the CEO put them firmly on his side.

Counterproductive results

A too rigid stance on authenticity and continuous efforts to maintain coherence between what you feel and what you say or do on the contrary can be detrimental. Prof Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD in her seminal Harvard Business Review article ‘The Authenticity Paradox’ says that a simplistic understanding of what it means to be authentic can limit your impact as an influencer, and an uncontrolled candour can lead to erosion of credibility. Cricketers K L Rahul and Hardik Pandya would agree with the candour part certainly, after the infamous Koffee with Karan episode. Similarly, chess legend Gary Kasparov’s derisive comment ridiculing the abilities of women chess players was uncalled for and expectedly got him negative press. Unfortunately, this backlash intensified further after his defeat to Judit Polgar in 2002. In 2017, Kasparov admitted his mistake, but it was a tad too late and damage was already done.

As the evidence from the world of business or politics suggests, sportspersons have no incentive to be authentic and sports fanatics should stop caring or debating about whether sportspersons are authentic or not. The only metric that matters is their performance on the field.

(The writer is a PhD candidate in the strategic management area at IIM Kozhikode.)