What 50 Million People Taught Me About Authenticity

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

Let me begin with a question. How many of you think you’ve been seen by a million people in the past year? That’s actually not that hard. You know, if for example, you have a channel on Youtube, you’ll notice that the subscribers will be there, and of course people will just randomly see your channel, even if they don’t subscribe to it. My daughter Laura has a channel about Webkinz, which are these little stuffed animals, and she’s got well over a million views on that channel. So if you’ve appeared in any online video in the last year, it’s actually possible that you’ve been seen by a million people. But how about 5 million? You know, that’s a little harder. How about 10 million? How about 50 million? I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to even imagine 50 million as a number, let alone 50 million people.

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But there’s something worse. What if you had no control over how those 50 million people got to experience you? So that’s not like doing a Youtube video where you talk to the cameras, where you’ve got total editorial control. But you know that those of us who are employees here at Independence Community College have been seen by somewhere between 30 and 50 million people.And you know, in the next few years, maybe as many as a hundred million people, in a setting in which we have really no control whatsoever. Previously on this podcast, I’ve answered some questions about the Last Chance U filming, but really the question that I continued to receive and the question that I’m asked very, very often is about how you remain yourself or authentic when these big cameras are pointed at you, and you’re wearing a microphone, and so forth. So I actually thought that I would talk a little bit about that in this podcast episode I want to tell you about something that I learned from being seen by about 50 million people and having no control about how I’m actually portrayed.

So first, this is how I ended up being seen. For those of you who have not listened to this podcast before, let me just take you through the bare bones of it. In spring of 2017, we were contacted here at the college by a production company that was currently making a show on Netflix. They had just finished the second season of the show, a show called Last Chance U. They had previously been filming the show in Scooba, Mississippi, at East Mississippi community college and they were looking for a different location, and had decided that we might fit the bill. Now the reasons why, by the way, that we fit the bill are pretty complicated. They’re mathematical, it’s about how many Division One-likely players you’re coaching, because the show needs to have enough source material about players who are trying to go on to Division One, and it’s going to follow them and basically chronicle their successes and failures. There are some more qualitative things you need to obviously have; a head coach of your football team that is exciting to watch or interesting in some way. And we certainly had that.

And so we began to have conversations with them about whether there was a good fit; whether we’d be good partners. Right off the bat we could tell it was a good fit. They were very open about what they were trying to do, how they approached their documentaries with what they called “a cold eye, but a warm heart.” We felt fairly certain that this would be a positive experience for students. The Board of Trustees at the college was positive about the project because Independence, Kansas is a small town, and it was the only way that that board could think of to bring this small town of Independence, Kansas to millions of people at no cost.

The production company was very clear about what they were looking for, which was primarily full access. Full access, by the way, has some limitations. Of course they couldn’t be in the room if we were talking about something that was legally restricted, for example, private information about students or some other legal matter. Another thing was that we were pretty emphatic with them (and they were quite agreeable) that individual faculty should be able to restrict access to their classroom. We felt that, you know, the classroom is a very specific, unique space where each teacher creates an environment where students can learn. And if that teacher felt that cameras were going to jeopardize that environment, we felt strongly that the teacher should be able to say thanks, but not in my classroom.

Ultimately, we did reach agreement with them and they began to film in the summer – I believe it was late July of 2017 – and they remained on campus through the fall semester of 2017 and then returned for additional work in the spring of 2018. The documentary series was released in the summer of 2018 and then throughout the rest of 2018 and up until this point, we have continued to film our second season with that show.

Of course, if you’ve seen the program, you know that it’s certainly not about the president of the college, it’s about the football team. But there is a fair amount of filming that goes on of me and the president’s office. They do interview you in your office periodically, and these interviews are pretty lengthy. They do occasionally film you around campus. They certainly occasionally will film you in more personal settings. So for example, the camera crew will come to your house. I remember they filmed me, for example, giving dinner to my family or telling them about the motorcycles that I have in my garage, that kind of thing. They certainly film college events that you attend. And of course there are many, many cameras at the football games themselves. So there’s a lot of opportunity for you to obviously appear on camera and thus, depending on your point of view, a lot of opportunity for things to go terribly awry and for that problem to be preserved forever on film.

The first thing you have to know is that a college president has very little of the normal freedoms that we all take for granted. A fellow president once told me that he was really looking forward to retirement so that he could get his first amendment rights back. But it goes way beyond just stripping you of free speech. You can’t wear what you want to Walmart. You have to think twice if you want to skip shaving for a day, you can’t drive whatever car you want. The fact is you’re a public figure. And then of course, everything you say is scrutinized for hidden meanings. And you know, I’ve got news for you. There’s never a hidden meaning. It’s so interesting – everybody sits around and trying to interpret what you’re saying, reading those tea leaves for what implications it may have, for their area of the college or for themselves personally. And the truth is usually you’d simply say what you mean and people then try to reinterpret it in some other way. So you have to actually speak very carefully because the goal is not to be understood. The goal is to speak in ways so that you cannot be misunderstood because misunderstandings are easy and frequent, and the situation really lends itself to that.

But then add to that the weirdest phenomenon of all a camera right here, right in your face. We’re talking 10 inches in some cases from your, your right cheek. That’s not the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is now when you’re imagining that, just leave the camera there, leave it there for, you know, one minute, three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes. That’s the way, for example, it often feels at a football game because they want to film the president.

And, , watching the game. So they’ll just come over and they’ll just stand, you know, just to the side of you, they don’t obstruct your view of the game. They stand to the side of you and they place this giant camera, this big steady camera, , right next to your face. And the camera isn’t there because you’re doing anything interesting. It’s there in case you do anything interesting, which of course most of the time you are not doing.

So here’s the next weird part. At this point, you’ve really got three choices. First you, while you can deliberately do something interesting, but guess what? If you do that, the show won’t broadcast that because if you do something because the camera there, then you’re really betraying the whole purpose of the show, which is to document reality, not you hamming it up for the camera. I remember before we even started filming, I had a meeting with the director in my office and I sort of offhandedly said, “oh, well, if you’re going to interview me here in my office, I’d better clean off my desk.” He immediately said, “oh, no, no, no. Don’t clean off your desk.” They don’t want really good to do anything different because the cameras are there. So you could do something interesting on purpose, but that’s not really gonna work.

Second, you can do nothing because you’re afraid of doing anything that would look stupid or cause people to criticize you. Oh, and by the way, based on my experience watching people getting filmed, except for the people who, you know, the teenagers who ham it up for the cameras, a lot of people just do nothing. And by the way, that’s certainly what I started out doing.

The third thing is you can realize that if you do nothing and that film crew is going to be filming you for a couple of years, then you are going to spend a couple of years of your life doing nothing. So who wants to do that? Not me.

I learned to be more authentic. I learned to be more comfortable in my own skin. I learned through sheer exposure, through sheer repetition, I learned to ignore the cameras and to be more of myself. And I think that that’s something pretty valuable. A lesson that I learned and in fact towards the end of filming the current season, I remember sitting with the director once in a theater a while an event was going on that was being filmed and I talked to him about how people have difficulty being authentic in front of the cameras. I made the statement that it seemed like authenticity was a very rare and valuable commodity in his business and and at its core was the reason for the success of the show. He agreed.

You may think, “well, I’m never going to be in that position. I’m not going to be the subject of a documentary series.” But let me tell you why authenticity is useful, why I feel I’m a better person because of the experience, and why it’s an overlooked trait, no matter who you are. Surveys consistently show that the number one trait that employees admire in their bosses is authenticity. Someone who walks the walk, someone who isn’t phony, however you want to put it. Basically, the people who don’t do this are the ones that employees like the least – bosses who are perceived as phony. Essentially, they’re perceived as liars, and conversely, the bosses who are perceived as authentic are perceived as honest. They’re not hiding anything. Now, the strange thing about this is that even though authenticity can make or break you in the business world, I don’t actually know that it’s taught very widely to students. I don’t mean just business students, because many people besides business students are going to be successful in their various fields, and success often means that you have to, for example, supervise people. When you supervise people, you get to evaluate them, but they evaluate you too, either formally or informally, and the number one thing they’re going to evaluate you on is whether you are you or if you’re just faking it.

This podcast is for administrative leaders in higher education, and I really don’t think that there’s enough discussion about whether or not we as leaders are authentic, whether or not we are being ourselves because everything around us is always pushing us to be something different than ourselves. As president, you’re expected to be dignified, you’re expected to be this, you’re expected to be that, you’re expected to present yourself a certain way, to dress a certain way, to drive a certain kind of car and all of these things may not be the real you. They are conspiring to basically create a different view of public persona that honestly, the farther it goes from the real you, the more people are going to simply be dismayed when they find out that the public persona is fundamentally different than the private persona.

I’m not sure that I had previously given enough thought to how important this is and how important it is to train our students to do this. Social media of course encourages students to do just the opposite, to carefully craft an online persona that presents the you, you would like to be, not necessarily the person you actually are. And that conversation that I had about authenticity with the director of Last Chance U occurred because at the event we were attending, I was watching students on a stage at a ceremony and as they were going through whatever emotions they were doing on the stage, you could see how awkward their movements were. Even their stance, their facial expression, they were unsure of who to be just because they were in front of a lot of people. And in fact, if you look at the most successful teachers of, say communication for example – here at ICC, we have a very fine professor of communication – and I think the reason why she’s successful is because she convinces the students to be not less like themselves, but more like themselves.

So I think that the educational benefit of making sure that students understand early on what authenticity is, why it’s desirable, and that it yields rich dividend for those students. I also found that for myself, my life was a better life when I learned to be one step more authentic. That is, authentic even with the camera’s pointed at me, because ultimately when you’re not being yourself, it sort of stands to reason that you’re not going to have a lot of personal connections with the people around you. If you think about it, if you’re not letting yourself come through, then you’re not really going to connect, and it’s those connections of course, that make our workplace a truly rewarding place to be.

So Last Chance U taught me something. It took time because it wasn’t easy, but I learned that if you can be you with 50 million people watching, you can be you anytime.