Real thing: Dress (and be) authentic


I took my mom on a recent business trip. It was apparent that I was underdressed, so we went shopping. I planned to get rid of my ratty sneakers, but my mom said I needed a suit.

A civilized disagreement soon turned into an all-out fight. At some point I said under my breath, "I'm going to write about this."

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 I already had at home. And I fought with my mom in public.

Surely you've had a similar failing moment. 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 reports that authenticity is the trait that defines great leaders. Generation Y values authenticity above almost everything else, according to reports from demographic research firm Yankelovich Partners.

You can already see that playing out in advertising, where glitz is over. The power of authenticity hit me recently, when I had a speaking engagement at the Ivey business school in London, Ontario. In a post-event survey, the reaction of the students was positive, although ironically it wasn't the content of the speech they cited so much as the authenticity.

The Review explains that authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you. And you have a good bit of control over how authentic you appear.

You don't do or say things you don't believe. In principle, everyone understands this, but people who are authentic get fanatical about it. The other quality you need for authenticity is the ability to relate to a lot of types of people– otherwise, you'll have a career where you connect only 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.

You don't need to tell everyone everything about yourself every time– any attempt would sound insane. You need to manage your authenticity by revealing the parts of you that will best connect with your audience.

If you have a fur coat and you love skiing, talk to the animal rights activist about skiing and talk to the 70-year-old heiress about fur coats. In each case, you can be authentic without putting the other person off.

Success at work requires working well with many different types of 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.

A lot of people claim the business world is incompatible with authenticity. However, the exact opposite is true. People are attracted to authentic leaders because the alternative is so disappointing: clich├ęd relationships, empty promises, and soulless conversation.

What people value in business is what they value in all of life: 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 a fight with your mom is a good opening.