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We are all challenged, every day, to show up as a version of ourselves that appeases, appeals, or conforms. But at what cost?

With three Olympic medals, three World Championship titles, two Commonwealth golds and a slew of African Championships titles, Caster Semenya is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s most successful track athletes ever.

She is also one of the most harassed, humiliated, vilified and unfairly treated athletes on the international stage.

For more than a decade, the world has fixated not on her incredible abilities, but on her gender, her sex, her sexual orientation and her physical appearance.

She has been the target of a sustained campaign of public bullying and shame-mongering. And subjected to the most invasive of physical examinations and unconscionable psychological trauma – including being forced to reveal her genitals to compete in an international event.

All under the flimsy façade of biological advantage and fair play.

But the treatment of Caster Semenya has been anything but fair. It’s been biased, brutal and, at its very core, deeply misogynistic.

Case in point: Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of the modern era. Undoubtedly, he has earned this distinction through a combination of natural talent, physical ability, commitment and training.

But Phelps also has a very distinct biological advantage over other swimmers. He produces roughly half the lactic acid of a typical athlete – and because lactic acid causes fatigue, he is physiologically primed to experience less fatigue, and therefore excel in his sport.

This is not a carefully guarded or craftily deflected secret. It is celebrated; a quirky anecdote in the story of physical prowess and athletic superiority.

Similarly, Usain Bolt has a higher-than-average ratio of what is known as fast-twitch fibres in his muscles – a composition that gives him disproportionate power and force and a speed estimated to be 99% greater than that of the general population. Again, nothing to see here – a mere biological quirk that complements his greatness.

The narrative is clear.

Phelps and Bolt are celebrated superheroes; their physical peculiarities side notes to their stories. Caster Semenya is shamed and pitied as a biological aberration.

Throughout what has become a decade-long ordeal, however, Caster has remained not only steadfast in her authenticity – as a woman and as an athlete – but as an outspoken champion for justice and fairness.

And the inspirational face of owning your authentic truth, no matter the cost.

Caster’s tremendous courage in standing up to her detractors and persecutors and taking pride in her authentic self is a phenomenal lesson in life and in business.

We are challenged, every day, to show up as a version of ourselves that fits the moment. A version that appeases, appeals, or conforms. It’s what oils the gears of transaction and interaction. It’s the art of the deal!

In a perfect world, there is one, authentic you – strong, vulnerable, decisive, doubtful, influential, influenceable. All at once, or interchangeably.

And yet, the complexities of our world often require us to compromise who we are, at any given moment, in response to the context or audience. To choose the version of ourselves that is most palatable or appropriate, or perhaps just the least disagreeable.

We are required to project a version of ourselves we think is most persuasive, most effective, or more often than not, simply most expedient. To land a client. To close a deal. To justify tough decisions.

But at what cost?

What do we sacrifice in the tiny acts of personal and professional capitulation with which we navigate our days and agendas? What is the sum of these small acts of inauthenticity?


Like vulnerability and empathy, authenticity often seems displaced in the accepted lexicon of strong, impactful leadership.

When we conjure images of corporate titans, from Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to Larry Ellison and even Anna Wintour, our adjectives rarely include words like vulnerable and approachable.

And yet, in an era where our people are rediscovering the weight of their values and purpose and increasingly drawing hard lines in the sand about work, wellness and meaning, authenticity may well be the greatest leadership skill.

Our people need us to show up as whole human beings in order to grant them the permission, tacit and implicit, that they may do so, too. That their full human experience will not only be tolerated but welcomed and embraced as an organisational strength. A superpower!

Previous articles in this leadership series have stressed the importance of vision, passion, integrity, and courage.

These are all critical components in growing the leaders we need to realise the change we want to see in our world.

At The Performance Agency, our corporate leadership development work centres on growing exactly these kinds of leaders:

Visionary women and men who see a better future. Leaders who leverage their passion – and ignite the passion of others – to inspire their teams to commit to this vision also. Leaders who operate from a deep sense of integrity. And leaders who dare to do the right thing, even when it is hard.

But none of these elements, as critical as they are in our modern era of work and life, are sustainable in the absence of authenticity.

In a world where people yearn for purpose and impact, and for work that means something beyond a paycheque and a pension, authentic leaders are the greatest drivers of engagement, loyalty and commitment. They are the greatest innovators and motivators. They are the talent magnets and possibility makers.

They are the future of sustainable, impactful business.

At any point in her remarkable but tumultuous career, Caster Semenya could have capitulated. She could have conformed. She could have agreed to take the testosterone-lowering drugs that would have allowed her to compete in her chosen discipline.

Her commitment to the authenticity of who she is, as a woman and as an athlete, has cost her people, relationships, spaces and material things. She chose her over everything.

Our choices about how we show up as leaders are no less consequential.

Leading as whole human beings – vulnerable, honest, self-aware, open to learning and growing – won’t always be easy. It may cost us the façade of power and invincibility.

Choose it anyway.

© Natalie Maroun


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