John Wayne would despise ‘Influencers.’ In many of his cowboy movie roles, Wayne had a pet phrase he used to describe pretenders. He’d describe a phony as “All hat and no cattle.” Meaning that the other individual looked the part but had no substance behind him.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a phony is “a fraudulent person or thing.” It’s a simple concept, really. I argue that authenticity is the greatest challenge to a business owner. If you possess it, and people know it, your business will thrive. If you don’t, your business will be challenged, constantly.

There are three areas where authenticity is non-negotiable: leadership, marketing and quality of product or service. Today we’ll examine authenticity in leadership.

Being an authentic leader is as simple a concept as there is: Be who you are, warts and all, at all times to all persons.

You can’t assume a false persona for a certain group of people, and then switch your character for every different group of people with whom you interact. You can’t treat your line cook like an overdone hamburger and then pretend to be magnanimous with a customer sitting at a table in the next room. You can’t cozy up to a potential investor and then kick your beagle when you walk in the door that evening.

Why is authenticity critical from a leadership standpoint? Trust, company culture and customer relations.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review, “many employees believe authenticity in the workplace leads to several benefits, including:

  • Better relationships with colleagues
  • Higher levels of trust
  • Greater productivity
  • A more positive work environment”

As a small business owner, who wouldn’t want to achieve those four characteristics? If I were to single out one, I think Trust is the most significant. You don’t gain any of the others until you establish trust, and that’s a two-way street. Once trust is lost, everything else plummets like my golf score on the 17th hole after too many adult beverages.

What’s the best way to develop trust? Telling the truth. Don’t channel your best Jack Nicholson here. According to an article in Entrepreneur magazine, being truthful “includes admitting when you are wrong or do not have all the answers.”

Showing vulnerability does not make you a weak leader. It tells everyone that you’re human. We all make mistakes, hopefully they’re small ones, but no one is perfect. If you pretend to be, you will lose all trust. Once trust is lost, most experts claim it can never be retrieved.

Now, you might be sitting there and saying to yourself, “I have a tendency to be too direct in my dialogue with team members, and I see some hesitancy to engage.” Or “I like to eat lunch at my desk because I’m usually thinking about my next thing, but my colleagues take that as being aloof.”

I’ll argue that you can’t change who you are, but you can alter some of your behaviors. Many behaviors are learned, many others are ingrained in us as babies and youngsters. You can’t change your upbringing, the family you were born into, the school you went to, etc. All of those scenarios influence the person that you’ve become. But you can make conscious decisions about those behaviors that you can change.

Some self-reflection might be necessary. Evaluate yourself and how you treat your family, your friends, your colleagues, your team, and your customers. Are there behaviors that you can be more conscious of to prevent them from having a negative impact on your relationships? Are you too hard on the paralegal who always seems to take too long to process necessary paperwork? Maybe you’re too demanding…or, maybe she does work at the pace of a garden slug. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in the middle.

Evaluate yourself. Evaluate your team. Be clear about your expectations. Seek input from your team, both good stuff and things that need to be improved. And most important, and many leaders are NOT good at this. Be exceptional with praise! Every single person in your family, in your friend circle and in your business needs to hear praise from you. Does that mean you have to kiss everyone’s fannies? NO. You should always look for ways to recognize when people do good things. Both large and small. It could just be a simple acknowledgment, like, “hey, I noticed that the customer you were waiting on was giving you a hard time and I appreciate that you handled them with kindness anyway. Well done.”

So, you’re not kissing anyone’s fanny. You’re simply acknowledging good work, good attitude, and great effort.

Another recommendation, and this one comes from personal experience. Fortunately, during my career of being the lead dog on the sled, I’ve been able to recognize my shortcomings, and/or the shortcomings of the team. So, when I make a new hire, I’m always looking for individuals who can fill in those holes so that the team is complete. This isn’t necessarily a personality issue but more about examining how you and your team function, and evaluating if you can be more successful if you had X, Y, or Z. When you have an opening on your team, find the human who is the missing piece to the puzzle so that your team is complete.

My final thought is that if you do any research on Authenticity, most, if not all, of the academic types in the ivory towers believe that authenticity can be taught, developed, coached, etc. I disagree one thousand percent. Again, I’ll go back to my simple but pragmatic definition: Being authentic is being who you are, warts and all, to all people all the time.

Because the last thing you want to be known for is being All Hat and no Cattle.

In today’s first installment, we discussed the importance of Authenticity in Leadership, and in part two, Influence This! we’ll discuss authenticity’s significance in Marketing and Customer Relations.
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