3 Signs You’re An Authentic Leader

Several months ago I had the opportunity to meet and interview the best-selling author Dick Cross on the Business Fuel podcast. We talked about his recently published book, Just Run It: Running an Exceptional Business is Easier than You Think. After reading his book and getting to know him, I’m convinced this guy is legit. With more than 25 years experience transforming under-performing businesses, his insight and passion is contagious.


“We can fix the American economy if we can teach people how to run a business,” he says. “What happens at the top matters.”

I recently spoke with him again about the need for business leaders to be authentic—which was perfect timing considering the recent release of the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013. Let me tell you why.

After interviewing 31,000 people in 26 markets around the world, it appears that we trust the boss to tell the truth only marginally more than we trust government officials, both of whom wind up squarely at the bottom of the list. Pretty discouraging when you consider that a week or two ago our congressmen were being publicly compared to cockroaches in the mainstream media.

“We’re clearly experiencing a crisis in leadership,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman PR.


I agree with both Edelman and Cross. We are in the midst of a leadership crisis and it’s largely because of what happens at the top. What’s more, I think the crisis exists in companies both large and small.

I think this is why the idea of authentic leadership resonates with me. I’m convinced that being authentic is a critical part of building trust among your employees—it’s obviously a problem when only 18 percent of people believe the boss tells the truth. Cross would say it’s better for the boss to be believed than admired. I think he smacks that nail squarely on the head. Here are three things I think makes a leader authentic:

  1. Don’t pretend to be more or know more than you really do:
    In what today feels like another life, I once worked with an executive who, before he joined our company, had been a big shot in one of the largest companies in the world. In fairness, he was a brilliant guy, but I couldn’t trust him. We were working on the launch of a new strategy and would sit around the whiteboard together and talk about where we wanted to go. Following the meeting I would work to articulate the plan in a presentation or document for a future meeting where we would re-group before we executed.Over the course of several months, each time we met, he would change the focus of our discussion and act as if I should have somehow known about his change of direction. After the second meeting it became obvious that he didn’t know what to do and was making it up as he went along—unfortunately, I couldn’t read his mind.He knew he was making it up and I knew it, but he didn’t think I knew it. Over the course of the months we worked together it became very frustrating and ultimately contributed to the end of our relationship. We likely would have made a lot more progress had he been willing to admit that he didn’t know what to do and that we needed to figure it out together.
  2. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re unsure or don’t know:
    That’s what Dick Cross means when he talks about being authentic. He would argue, and I would agree that it’s OK to admit it when you don’t know. I’ve worked with other people Dick would call authentic, people who acknowledged up front that we were both in undiscovered country and were going to work together to figure out where we were going. Our relationship was based on trust and mutual respect. And it went both ways. I would have crawled over broken glass for that guy. Although we don’t work together anymore, we still get together from time to time to talk about our careers and any exciting projects we might be working on at the moment. He was authentic.
  3. Be comfortable in your own skin:
    This might appear to be a little more touchy-feely than some people are comfortable with, but Cross suggests you make a list of the things you like about yourself and the things you don’t—your strengths and weaknesses. Get comfortable with where you’re not as skilled or comfortable and stop pretending like you are. Cross argues that too many business leaders are scared to death that the are going to be discovered for the frauds they secretly think they are. I’m wondering where it is in the CEO handbook that says you need to know everything to run a business? Anywhere else, being Mr. Know-It-All isn’t considered a good thing—it’s considered rude and boorish.

Authenticity is a trait that is generally admired by most of us—is there any reason it shouldn’t be admired in someone like the boss or CEO? That might be the first step to creating more trust among employees. Actually be trustworthy by being authentic.

Ty Kiisel  is a contributing author focusing on small business financing at OnDeck, a technology company solving small business’s biggest challenge: access to capital. With over 25 years of experience in the trenches of small business, Ty shares personal experiences and valuable tips to help small business owners become more financially responsible.

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business best practices, tips and advice accessible by weaving personal experiences, historical references and other anecdotes into relevant discussions about leading people, managing a business and what it takes to be successful. Ty writes about small business for Lendio.

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