“I had no idea that being my authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become.” — Oprah Winfrey
In2015, Harvard Business Review declared authenticity as the “gold standard for leadership.” That said, being an authentic leader is sometimes easier said than done.
According to Harvard Business Review, many leaders “assume that authenticity is an innate quality — that a person is either authentic or not. In fact, authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you. No leader can look into a mirror and say, ‘I am authentic.’”
We’ve all encountered inauthentic leadership. As a lawyer, I’ve encountered it plenty. One former boss in particular oozed inauthenticity. It was palpable in the firm and it made all his employees avoid him. His law firm’s marketing portrayed him as an altruistic lawyer fighting for immigrant rights. On the inside, he only spoke of dollar figures and how to pitch to immigrants. His employees lost respect for him and dreamed of the day they would leave. I left after 6 months. I should have left sooner.
Authenticity is increasingly important in online businesses and social media. Consider TikTok sensation Charlie D’Amelio. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, the sixteen-year-old was asked her secret to gaining 80 million followers.
“Be authentic,” she said. “You can’t fake a smile.”
The most authentic influencers capitalize on the trust they develop with their followers and their brands can achieve massive growth — in followers and income.
But what exactly is ‘authenticity’?
It’s not so easy to define. The defining aspect of authentic leadership is a higher capacity for emotional intelligence. Authentic leaders “ensure that their actions and words match.” According to Avolio and Gardner:
“Inauthentic leaders focus more on their gains, interests, and developments and do not consider or take into account the growth of their followers.”
Plain and simple, authentic leadership means having a high regard for your customer base. This is achieved by respecting and honoring your words through action. To have a successful business is important — no doubt about that. But to have a business that has longevity and respect, authenticity is of paramount importance.
How to cultivate authenticity
Though you can’t simply declare yourself “authentic,” experts say there are traits you can practice to cultivate more authenticity.
According to Avolio and Gardner, to achieve authenticity you need the following traits: transparency, openness and trust.
One PR firm, Cohn & Wolfe, measures authenticity using three characteristics: reliability, respectfulness, and reality. These can be achieved by reliably delivering to customers and “carefully managing customer relationship.”
It’s important to note: monetary gains and authenticity are not mutually exclusive. Some of the most successful companies incorporate authentic traits into their corporate culture. Cohn & Wolfe created an extensive study called the Authentic 100. They surveyed 12,000 consumers in a quest to find the most authentic companies. Their results concluded that Disney was the most authentic company in the United States. Microsoft, Amazon, and BMW also made the top 5 list.
There’s no better example of an authentic leader than the host, producer, and author Oprah Winfrey. She has managed to build an empire on her transparency. Her honesty and openness created deep trust among her followers.
Through her transparency and reliability, she has become one of the greatest leaders of our time. Forbes estimates Oprah’s net worth to be 3.1 billion dollars (as of 2020). The Oprah Winfrey Show brought in an average of 7–15 million viewers a day. Her own charities are estimated to be worth $200 million.
Here, a few practices to cultivate your own authenticity.
Align your words and your actions
Avolio and Gardner agree authentic brands align their words and their actions. Authentic leaders do what they believe is right and disregard the opinion of others. Authenticity doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone, it’s having a vision and following through with it. It’s respecting your followers by interacting with them honestly and openly.
Working at the law firm, I realized my boss’s words and actions did not align. Even worse, his inauthenticity spilled over onto his employees. Sooner or later his clients caught on and his brand was tarnished.
Inauthenticity will always reveal itself eventually. To make sure you’re being authentic, make sure your words align with your actions. Be cognizant of the brand you are creating. If you’re a writer, make sure you’re being open and honest. If you have a product, make sure you align your product with your purpose. There’s no faking authenticity.
When we are self-aware, we know our strengths and weaknesses. We also know our values and goals. According to Avolio and Gardner, there are four components of self-awareness: values, identity, emotions, and motive.
When thinking about these components, we can ask ourselves four questions:
What are our values?What do I identify with?What am I feeling?What is my motive?
When we ask ourselves these questions we create a clearer view of what we want our brand to be—what it stands for and how to move forward authentically.
For example, as a writer, I want to create a brand around my values. My motives are to inspire and improve lives. I want my words to affect change and transformation.
The topics of travel, feminism, equality, and financial freedom all align with my values. When I write about something popular or what I think will get published, I’m not being authentic. When my writing strays from those four questions, I know I need to get back on track.
To become authentic in our brands, we must first become self-aware.
Be yourself by being transparent
In Wharton Magazine, author and leadership expert Henna Innam writes:
“How do we build these authentic connections? We let our guards down. We step into our authentic selves to seek to see the human beings behind the labels we attach to ourselves and others.”
When creating a brand, your greatest asset is your authentic self. Your authentic self is a “product” that can’t be replicated. We each possess our own cocktail of values, emotions, and motives.
According to research, being transparent is the key to authenticity. When you’re transparent, you are open, reliable, respectful, and real. These qualities develop trust and “follower development.”
At one point GMOs were the central focus in the health and wellness industry. Customers felt betrayed by companies who failed to disclose GMOs or other harmful ingredients. Worst of all, they felt duped by a company that would add harmful ingredients to their foods and formula. The inauthenticity in these companies was blatant. Their marketing strategy aimed at selling wholesome food of high quality to babies, but their actions didn’t align. Customers were furious and their brand tarnished.
Companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Wholefoods heard the outcry and stepped up. According to Entrepreneur, Wholefoods “is working on becoming the first national grocery chain to offer full GMO transparency with its projects.”
Another example is Honest Company — a business built on marketing transparency in their products. The Honest Company’s founder, Jessica Alba, heard the outcry of parents. The “honest” and “authentic” culture she is trying to build has created a billion-dollar empire.
The truth of the matter is you can’t claim to be authentic and you certainly can’t fake it. Authenticity is found by looking within and having a clear message and a pure motive. In business and your career, making money can’t be the sole catalyst behind your goals.
It appears Shakespeare was teaching us the most important lesson of all:
“To thine own self be true” can be applied to your life and your brand.