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The Role of Authenticity in Building Trust

Apr 6, 2020 | 12m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why authenticity will help you to build implicit trust and credibility as a leader
  • How to speak to diverse audiences while staying true to your vision and values
  • How the Obama campaign team scaled trust even as they rapidly grew


Authenticity First

While we may believe that making important decisions involves a great deal of time and thought, in actuality, we make key – and often large – decisions very quickly. This is especially true when it comes to how we view people in leadership positions. When you see a candidate running for President, you likely already have an inherent sense of whether or not they’re worthy of your trust.

The limbic system in our brains is designed to quickly take measure of a person and decide if they indeed are who they say they are, and whether they’re passionate about what they claim to be passionate about. Before we rationalise our way to a decision, much of our minds and emotions have already made a choice. As a leader, you should live and breathe authenticity to inspire trust in people.

Whether you’re the leader of a team, the CEO, or a candidate running for presidency, you should know exactly who you are and what you want to contribute – your value proposition. Once you’re able to clearly answer those questions, other aspects of the organisation such as culture, content, or even online presence will flow from that clarity. If there’s disharmony in the most elemental of questions about a leader’s authenticity, ruptures will eventually surface. These ruptures will extend throughout the organisation.

Think of how many times you’ve seen business leaders or political candidates who clearly seem like they either don’t believe in what they’re selling, or are unsure about their stance because so much has pivoted in a short period of time. Ask yourself if there’s a constant, simple core truth as to who you are and what you represent. Write this down if it helps you. When you’ve established your core values, you’ll be able to communicate it more effectively to the rest of the organisation. On the flipside, inauthenticity at the top of the pyramid will also manifest across the rest of the organisation.

In fact, if you think back to the candidates who ran against Barack Obama – Hilary Clinton and Mitt Romney – both were unclear about their “whys” even halfway into the race. If you can’t answer that question at the very beginning of your journey as a leader, you shouldn’t be building an organisation, a team, or a brand just yet. This lack of clarity will not only cause too many cracks on the surface in the beginning, but will end up causing severe damage to the foundations of your organisation in the long run.

A simple way to get started is by clearly and explicitly sharing across the organisation why you’re doing what you do – your whys. Don’t simply begin a meeting by jumping straight into administrative items on the agenda. Instead, start by framing the discussion. State the purpose of the meeting upfront, and explain how your efforts are contributing to the larger goals of the organisation.

In the absence of that clear sense of why, that vacuum will be filled up by other people’s agendas. The last thing you want is to present yourself publicly as an organisation in an inconsistent way. You shouldn’t, for instance, be marketing change in one context and experience in another. Mixed messaging dilutes trust.

When a leader is seen to be changing tunes to suit their audience, it becomes difficult for people to trust what they’re saying. Yet in order to successfully connect with your audience, you should be adapting your message to suit their particular interests or needs. So how do you strike this balance?

Adapt Your Message Without Losing Authenticity

During the Obama campaigns, we travelled across the country sharing our vision with audiences who were radically different from each other. Yet we were able to connect with people and win their trust in our vision. How do you inspire trust when you’re speaking to people with very different concerns and backgrounds?

What worked for the Obama campaign, and could just as easily apply to a business scenario, is to customise your messaging. While your values and the core of your message should remain consistent, you can choose to highlight different parts of your story to make it more relevant to the people you’re speaking to.

For example, in a rural area, we could take Obama’s core values and apply them to relevant issues such as agriculture or the challenges of distance learning. In an urban setting, we’d choose to focus on the access to healthy food and green spaces in the city for children. The same message was customised for specific constituencies for maximum resonance.

A leader’s challenge, then, becomes the striking of the fine balance between giving the people what they want while also staying true to the vision. If you find yourself customising your message to the point where you’ve drifted away from your core authenticity, you’ve lost that balance. Mixed messages never lead to success. But if you’re packaging your core values in a way that appeals to certain audiences and circumstances, you’ve hit the sweet spot.

Too many times, leaders try to please everyone. They might get carried away and promise more than what they can deliver, or even genuinely stand by. That’s a dangerous space for a leader to occupy. In the first campaign we ran against Hillary Clinton, her campaign message was built around experience. When Barack started to gain popularity, she began to change, but eventually went back to her initial message. After the third or fourth pivot, people didn’t know what she was selling anymore and lost trust in her altogether.

“Doing your job well and winning a popularity contest are two different things.”

Hilary’s shape-shifting was the foil to Barack’s steadfastness. Barack set out with the clear goal of sharing his authentic thoughts about the various issues that were concerning Americans at that time such as healthcare and the Iraq War. He decided that if people resonated with him, he’d move forward. Barack was firm in not shape-shifting to adapt to trends, news cycles, or current opinions just to gain popularity. As a result, people trusted him. His roots in the values of his organisation were what won him the election.

When The News is Bad

Sometimes, the truth is a hard pill to swallow. As a leader, you often have the difficult job of conveying difficult messages to the people who rely on your counsel. If you want to inspire trust, you should always choose the discomfort of being honest and transparent over misleading people by sugarcoating the truth. I had no issue with sharing bad news or being the one contrarian voice in a room of 15 people. When I shared these views, it was always in the interest of our big picture goals, and never about being liked.

A lot of these dynamics are playing out in the White House today. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the White House seems to be engaging in a marketing exercise, giving people reason to be hopeful rather than delivering the sober information that will help them make important decisions about their families and lives.

“A lot of people are like water: if there’s an easy way out, they’ll take it. Exemplary leaders are those who choose to stand for their values, especially when it’s not easy to do so.”

It’s only human to avoid being the bearer of bad news. However, if you sugarcoat things as a leader, you may give someone short term gratification, but are setting them up for even bigger losses and hurt in the long term. Being straight and honest is the tougher, but more advisable choice. This way, whether you’re delivering good news or bad news, you’re trusted.

We’re living in unprecedented times, and it is more important than ever for people to be able to trust the leaders who make crucial decisions that impact our lives. Who would you trust in times of crisis? A leader who holds on to the values you’re familiar with while addressing the needs of the hour, or someone who behaves incongruously with what they claim to stand for?

Times May Change, But Your Values Shouldn’t

With a strong sense of your cultural North Star, you can scale, pivot, and evolve without losing your authenticity. Trust is built when you choose to remain true to your vision even when the circumstances around you take a 180 degree flip.

Again, think about the Covid-19 pandemic that’s unfolding. From hospitals, to higher education institutions, to supply chains, everyone is going to come out of this differently. The question is: can leaders navigate this unexpected disruption on an operational level while continuing to collect insights – procurement and risk management, for instance – that will provide the crucial foundation upon which we can rebuild society after the Covid-19 crisis.

If enough leaders are meticulous about documenting the lessons that were learned during this period, this will help us redefine “normal” in the next few years. The most successful leaders, and the ones that inspire most trust, will be those who are able to accommodate to the changing demands of personhood, while still maintaining a core authenticity that people find familiar.

Nobody has a crystal ball to anticipate the next curveball that will come your way. However, being able to constantly learn and evolve will keep you relevant and competitive. While your strategy and tactics may change with the times or circumstances, who you are and why you do what you do shouldn’t.

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Roger Fisk

Former Senior Aide

President Obama Campaign



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