Risking Authenticity in the Digital Age

It pays bring your unique self to the table. Here’s how to do it.

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

Authenticity in leadership can be particularly hard when it feels as if everyone’s watching, an awareness that’s heightened by social media and an unforgiving internet. The response to putting yourself out there—to say nothing of making the inevitable missteps—can be swift and harsh. This environment creates a powerful incentive to wobble on authenticity and conceal the honest, vulnerable parts of ourselves.

We believe the cost of giving in—and hiding out—is too high. Without authenticity, you won’t be fully trusted. And without being fully trusted, you won’t be able to build a leadership platform that’s worthy of you and your potential for impact. Here’s our best advice for how to reveal who you are in an age when everyone’s a critic.

Take back control from your primate brain.

The part of your brain that’s wired for survival does an excellent job of protecting you, but it shouldn’t always be calling the shots. For one thing, it’s highly unreliable at evaluating threats (no, your upcoming speech is not going to kill you, despite the high levels of adrenaline being pumped into your system). Your primate brain is also not playing the long game. It was designed to get you to the end of the day, not to the end of a leadership journey filled with meaning and impact. Buddhism has been wrestling with how to master this part of the mind for thousands of years, and the modern mindfulness movement has created a bridge to accessible tools and practices that can be enormously helpful. Our advice is to at least give them a fair look.

Find your authenticity triggers.

Figure out the people and things that tend to pull your full humanity to the surface. Is it your beloved spouse? Favorite sports team? Passion for Harry Potter trivia? Surround yourself with reminders of these things or—better yet—find ways to somehow bring them with you into spaces where an inauthentic version of you has a habit of showing up. In the not-so-distant past, Anne sometimes struggled with authenticity when pitching new investors, a scenario that often felt safer behind a two- dimensional mask. One thing that made a difference was to incorporate stories about our son into those conversations, as his experience inspired the company she was launching. This choice made it easier for Anne to show up as herself and be an effective messenger of the company’s vision.

Drop the script.

Make sure you’re not emphasizing logic at the cost of authenticity. There is an obvious upside to leaders being informed and articulate, but when it comes to trust, we also crave access to the person behind the talking points. Find moments to keep it real with people and communicate your unscripted thoughts and ideas. Start with low- risk settings, if needed, such as intimate lunches or meetings with allies. Dial up the stakes as you get increasingly comfortable flexing your authenticity muscles.

Give us the “why.”

What drives you to do what you do every day? What has called you to the practice of leadership? Many leaders keep these fundamental truths to themselves, sometimes simply out of habit, missing an opportunity to build trust by revealing what matters most to them. If you don’t answer these questions for your colleagues, then they’ll have no choice but to fill in the blanks themselves, right or wrong.

Learn in public.

At some point, it became a false badge of honor to think something and never waiver from that thought. Give yourself the freedom to update your point of view based on new information or experiences. Do it out in the open and model what it looks like to have the courage to evolve. Not only will we get to experience a more authentic version of you—the human brain is constantly updating and refreshing—but you will also give the rest of us permission to learn and keep an open mind. A great thing about authenticity is that it’s crazy infectious.

Build a Team.

Authenticity is not a solo sport. It should not be attempted alone in the private distortion chamber of our own minds. Build a Team (capital T) of friends and colleagues around you who can help you stay connected to the real you. Make it a requirement of Team membership that everyone is as comfortable with your insecurity as your audacity. Now spend time with the Team on a very regular basis, no less than monthly.

Focus on unleashing other people.

Finally, remember what you came to do as a leader: empower other people, in both your presence and your absence. The less your agenda is about you and your shortcomings, the more the authentic version of you can show up and get the real work of leadership done.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from UNLEASHED: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. Copyright 2020 Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. All rights reserved.

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