by Douglass and Lisa-Marie Hatcher
For many of us, authenticity feels like one of those “I know it when I see it” terms: clear in concept but perhaps not as clear in execution. In this piece, we want to help change that. We want to help make authenticity something you can define and do for yourself and your organization or team, especially as it relates to leadership and communications.
As you can see in the image below, there are three qualities that help create authenticity: Humility, Empathy, and Vulnerability. Together, they form what we call The Authenticity Triangle.
In this blogpost, we’ll apply all three qualities to authentic leadership and authentic communication, specifically storytelling. We’ll examine each quality, offer a working definition, apply it to leadership, and then we’ll apply it to storytelling.
For each quality, we’ll give you an exercise to help move you toward greater authenticity in your leadership and in your communications.
Let’s get started!
Humility isn’t, as pastor and author Rick Warren says, “thinking less of yourself”— “it’s thinking of yourself less.” Leadership that possesses this kind of humility isn’t afraid to ask questions, to say “I don’t know,” to probe deeper, to surround itself with smarter people, to ask for feedback, to course-correct.
When it comes to communication, specifcally storytelling, humility allows you to put your focus where it should be, not on your brand or yourself, but on your customer or stakeholder. Humility allows you to make your customer the hero and yourself the mentor or guide. When this kind of humility is truly activated, the term servant leadership becomes wonderfully redundant.
So, what’s an easy way to help foster this all-important quality of humility? Learn something new, especially as a team. Keep a team journal that everyone contributes to that speaks to what they’ve learned, individually and as a group. The key is to remember the feeling of not knowing something and what it feels like to ask questions and to rely on others for help.
Empathy allows you to walk around in someone else’s shoes, to see the world from their vantage point. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella makes it his passion “to put empathy at the center of everything.” Leadership that possesses empathy makes understanding other perspectives a priority, from—as Nadella puts it—“the products we launch to the markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with.”
What about empathy and storytelling? Well, the same humility that allows you to put your customer first also paves the way for the empathy you need to speak to your customer’s pain points.
For example, when you’re pitching a potential client for business, don’t start out with yourself and what you’re offering, begin with the world as your potential client sees it and acknowledge the challenges they’re facing. Then you can come in with ways you and your company may be of help.
The above problem-solution dynamic, if it’s truly infused with empathy, isn’t transactional—it’s transformational. It’s about wanting to walk alongside your customer to help in any way you can.
Here’s a great example. Years ago, a call center employee at the footwear company, Zappos, received a call from a customer wanting, not a boot or a shoe, but a pizza. Yep, a pizza. So, what do you think happened? Well, the customer indeed got a pizza and, not only that, we bet Zappos got a customer for life in return.
A great exercise in empathy comes from a former colleague. He likes to begin team retreats with people taking off their shoes and sliding them to the person on their right to try on (and wear, if possible). You get the idea. Super simple. Super impactful.
Vulnerability is the emotional tripwire you feel when you step beyond your comfort zone. It’s the bridge that brings your brand and your customers/stakeholders closer together. Leadership that possesses vulnerability understands how to use struggle strategically to create connection and build trust.
To share struggle strategically is key, not only to authentic leadership but to authentic storytelling as well. There are so many amazing examples of how to do this. Consider Walmart’s Fight Hunger, Spark Change TV ad campaign. The person in the ad says the following: “hunger is something way too many kids and families struggle with. I was one of those kids.” The person speaking is NBA star, LeBron James.
If you’re like us, you’re likely not going hungry and you’re likely not a pro athlete. But when you see this ad and hear LeBron’s admission of hunger as a child, you cannot help but feel pulled into this story and inspired to want to help.
So, how can you harness the power of vulnerability?
Let’s say you’re launching a new product. Instead of just rolling it out—all perfect and shiny—use your favorite social media platform to take your followers behind the scenes. Show them some of what went into making the product: warts, hiccups, laughs, and all. Your audience will feel more connected to you and have greater trust, because you’ve opened up to them and used struggle strategically. Just to show you that “we walk the talk”, check out one of our social media posts, singing along with the Styx classic: Come Sail, Away after a long day in the office.
TO SUM IT UP
Authenticity is tough but it’s well worth the effort. Authenticity lifts us up and moves us forward. It activates the best version of ourselves for all to see in plain view—on good days and bad—for the continued betterment of the greater whole. It’s a lot more “we” than “me.” We hope you use our Authenticty Triangle as a reminder to practice humility, empathy, and vulnerability in your leadership and communications.
Where will your authentic leadership and storytelling take you today?
About the authors
Douglass and Lisa-Marie Hatcher are co-founders of communicate4IMPACT, a business storytelling firm, as well as co-authors of Win With Decency: How to Use Your Better Angels for Better Business.