I went on a business trip and I took my mom. When I got there it was apparent that I was underdressed, so we went shopping. I planned on getting rid of my ratty sneakers, but my mom said I needed a suit. Somehow a civilized disagreement turned into an all-out fight with me and my mom using clothing as a metaphor for everything we hate about each other. At some point, I said under my breath, “I’m going to write about this is my column.”
My mom said, “Don’t do that! You’ll make yourself look bad! People will know you didn’t dress properly.”
But here it is. For the world to know. I dressed inappropriately. I ended up buying expensive shoes that I already had at home. And I fought with my mom in public.
Surely you’ve had a moment of failing — maybe similar to this one. Don’t be so quick to hide it from people, because the new battleground in business is authenticity and you’d better get some.
The Harvard Business Review (paid) reports this month that authenticity is the trait that uniquely defines great leaders. Generation Y values authenticity above almost everything else, according to a report from demographic research firm Yankelovich Partners. You can already see that playing itself out in advertising, where glitz is over. The power of authenticity hit me recently, when I had a speaking engagement at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Ontario, Canada. In a post-event survey, the reaction of the students was very positive; though ironically it wasn’t the content of the speech they cited so much as the authenticity.
Research about authenticity by Rob Goffee, professor at the London Business School, explains that authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you. So you have a good amount of control over how authentic you appear.
Being genuine means you don’t do or say things you don’t believe. Everyone understands this in principle. But people who are authentic are fanatical about it. The other quality you need for authenticity is to be able to relate to a lot of types of people — otherwise you’ll have a career where you only connect to people who are like you.
The first thing, then, is to know who you are and what you believe. Then you need to have confidence that being your true self will get you where you want to go. But you don’t need to tell everyone everything about yourself every time. It would be impossible, in fact, and any attempt at that would sound insane. You need to manage your authenticity by revealing the parts of you that will best connect with your audience.
Success at work requires working well with many different types people while remaining true to yourself. You do not have to agree with everything your boss does, for example. But you have to speak about his policies in ways that remain true to your own values — which means not lying but not undermining your boss, either. People who think this task is impossible are actually people who are too lazy to be authentic.
The real work of authenticity is not just knowing yourself, but taking the time to understand where other people are coming from and to respect them for that. If you have a fur coat and you love skiing, talk to the animal rights activist about skiing and talk to the seventy-year-old heiress about fur coats. In both cases you can be authentic without putting the other person off.
A lot of people think that the business world is not compatible with authenticity. However the exact opposite is true; those who stand out as leaders have a notable authenticity. People are attracted to authenticity because the alternative is so disappointing: Cliched relationships, empty promises and conversation with no soul. What people value in business is what they value in all of life, and that is a real connection. People need to see a genuine part of you and they need to relate to it. So in many cases, a wardrobe mishap or fight with your mom is a good opening.