The business community throws the word “authenticity” around with the same frequency that some people use “literally.” The more that we hear each term, the more punch those words lose.
That’s because most businesses leaders say one thing and do another. They preach authenticity and market it to nines. But when the gloss finally wears off, their true colors (and those of their company) show.
That isn’t to say that entrepreneurial authenticity is a lost cause, though. It still draws a direct path to gaining the faith of a customer base, but it should not be some shiny and empty gesture whose sole purpose is to sell an image. That’s “faux-thenticity,” something good leaders should keep far away from their companies.
Be Truly Authentic
A fish rots from the head. Put a little less graphically, leaders who fake their way through authenticity cultivate a toxic environment that leaves employees feeling disconnected and unimportant.
The pursuit of authenticity for authenticity’s sake is pointless and even damaging. Drop the act and start being real with your team — and your clients. Begin with these four strategies:
Don’t preach “principles” that you’re not ready to embody.A company’s values are its North Star. Too many leaders relegate those principles to “About” page window dressings that are a nonfactor in their day-to-day behaviors and attitudes.
To kick-start shifts in authenticity, leaders need to practice what they preach. Get out of the marketing mindset, take a hard look at your behavior, and make a genuine attempt to fix moments of inauthenticity. Confront long-engrained habits (e.g., know-it-all-ism, shunning vulnerability, etc.) to free employees from this unhealthy pressure.
At my company, we talk about our 15 principles every time we meet as a team. We discuss our recent decisions and the way our operations are living up to these tenets. This ensures that our principles knit us together as a team and guide our approach.
Drop the “brave” face.You can’t be authentic without being vulnerable. There isn’t a leader in the world who isn’t flawed — to pretend like you always know what’s right is actively deceptive and will put pressure on employees to hide their shortcomings.
As public speaker and psychologist Brené Brown says, vulnerability is a sign of courage rather than weakness. That’s why I reward my team for showing vulnerability with something I call the “Courage to Disagree” award. If anyone spots a disconnect between the way leadership acts and our core values, they’re encouraged and incentivized to call us out on it. This policy encourages radical honesty and levels the playing field between leadership and employees.
Don’t run from your mistakes.As a leader, I want to make sure that employees feel comfortable telling me when they screwed up. If errors get swept under the rug, they become so much harder to fix.
I lead by example by immediately — and loudly — fessing up whenever I make a mistake. It helps me to put the error in context and think through a solution. Most importantly, it gives others the green light to speak their truths. When employees admit their mistakes, they’re also going to be more likely to share dissatisfactions.
Exorcize the bad juju.A fish rots from the head, but the result will be the same if there’s something rotten in the belly — toxicity that limits our success and our connection to customers. When misalignment happens further down the food chain, the effect can be even more destructive; issues can go unnoticed for a long time and eat away at good culture from the inside out.
Learn to spot people early on who are not culturally aligned with your organization. Beware of people who look down on vulnerability, who are eager to hide mistakes, or who condemn the mistakes of others. These people may be talented, but if they’re undermining your authenticity, they’ve got to go.
Don’t be one of the companies paying lip service to authenticity. Anyone can look great on LinkedIn, but your work will be shallow and ineffective unless you’re living honestly and striving together within your team for a common purpose.
We live in a time where there’s a real gap between what people say and what they do. This isn’t because we’re all terrible people; it’s due to a mistaken belief that success requires you to be inauthentic and ruthless. This is a big old societal lie — it’s time we leaders started spreading truth and getting real.
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