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5 August 2016

The Authenticity Conundrum

Written by: Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, Account Director at Edelman

Corporate Reputation, Government Affairs, Trust

“My job titles only tell you what I’ve done. They don’t tell you why,” Hillary Clinton said as she became the first woman to accept a major party’s U.S. presidential nomination. “The truth is through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.”

And there you have it: a long awaited admission by one of the world’s most criticised public personas that she struggles with conveying her true self.

Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. It should not be confused with “straight-talking” – a tactic Donald Trump has used to good effect. True authenticity in a leadership sense is aligning thought, action and feelings to build emotional capital (and trust) and inspire collective action.

Hillary, perhaps more than other leaders, has a big job to do convincing her sceptics and detractors who she really is, how she got there and why they should join her.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals time and again that people crave – even expect – leaders to be authentic. Nearly 8 in 10 of the general population are looking for CEOs to speak more openly about their personal values. So why do so many leaders struggle with it?

Leaders struggle with authenticity for several reasons. Many struggle with finding the balance between authority (knowing what you’re talking about) and approachability (wanting others to like you). This can be compounded by the frequency with which executives are changing roles and even sectors.

Another reason leaders struggle is often down to the nature of the criticism. Leaders, particularly those in the public eye, are critiqued more often on style than substance – which can feel like an assault on their identity. This is likely why, in a 2014 Harvard Business Review study asking CEOs about their biggest fears, the majority cited being seen as incompetent as their number one fear.

When 1 in 2 people say CEOs are unrelatable and overpaid, how do leaders choose between what is expected—and therefore effective—and what feels authentic? This is as true in the real world as it in the digital one. Leaders are expected to present themselves not only as executives but as human beings, with opinions and broader interests. Having to carefully curate a public persona may clash with one’s private identity.

The day job requires most leaders to focus their communications on the operational and financial aspects of a company – but when 80% of the general population want to see CEOs taking a stand on societal issues like income inequality, where is the balance?

The evidence is clear. We want to hear from open, honest and authentic leaders, so how can they respond?

Tell a personal story, but don’t ‘stick’ to it. We all have personal narratives about the pivotal moments that defined us, but they can become outdated. Leaders need to believe their story – but also embrace how it can change over time. This may mean editing, condensing or tearing up and rewriting tried and tested material to emphasise different facets of their experiences.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is a big difference between copying someone wholesale and borrowing selectively from others. The best leaders borrow the best bits they’ve gleaned from others (giving appropriate credit where credit is due) and then improve, tweak and make them their own.

Stand for something and engage your base. Leaders should be prepared to stand for something and be visible about it. This starts with engaging their employee base. 81% of Edelman’s Trust Barometer respondents agree communicating with employees is most important in building trust in a CEO, even more so than meetings with investors and analysts. One-way engagement isn’t enough. Business leaders must become attentive to what is happening around them. Employees are a rich source of information and leaders should always be wary of too much ‘good news’.

If Hillary Clinton is looking for post-Brexit lessons from across the pond, she would be wise to take note of the failure to achieve authenticity. Scaremongering trumped trust-building and individual interests won over collective action.

Instead Hillary would be wise to heed her own advice from nearly four decades ago when she said, “One cannot live one’s life based on what somebody else’s image of you might be.” Leaders of all stripes need to speak from a place of genuine conviction not obligation; anything less breeds distrust.

Written by Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, Account Director

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