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Six Signs You’re an Authentic Leader

It is always exhilarating to see what can happen when leaders embrace authenticity.

Last spring, I attended Innovation Uncensored, Fast Company’s flagship innovation conference in New York City. In an open, intimate setting, almost 20 CEOs and leaders partnered with Fast Company editors to candidly examine the authenticity of brands, leadership, and new paths to innovation.

I found this conference incredibly refreshing – not just because I was 10 feet from Pixar’s Ed Catmull, Chelsea Clinton and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi – but because it was clear these leaders were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. They were passionate about their purpose, putting their values into practice, and showing they knew how to lead with their heart—and their head.

Below are my six takeaways from that event. Which one resonates the most with you? Which is the most challenging for us as leaders? And which one do we need to focus on the most in 2015?

1. Be Your Own Trip (aka Be Yourself)

One of the standout speakers was Sophia Amoruso, CEO of Nasty Gal, called “fashion’s new phenom” by Forbes magazine. She started her online vintage clothing site when she was 22, and today, eight years later, it generates $100 million and has more than 350 employees. Refreshingly honest, Amoruso celebrates her “inner freak,” which she openly shares in her new book #GIRLBOSS. “I’m kind of on my own trip,” she readily admitted, and stressed that there is “no gap” between who she is and what’s reflected externally to her millions of fans. Her advice: be authentic, and surround yourself with people who believe in your brand values. Then learn to trust them and empower them—become a flock.

2. Ride With Your Tribe

Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean spoke on a panel about the “inexplicable loyalty” of cult brands. Dean believes that experiences are the new luxury good—but it all starts with a shared set of beliefs and values. He stressed that Tough Mudder, which is an extreme endurance event, is not a race; it’s a challenge. Being a Mudder℠ is about the enormous sense of accomplishment that you feel when you overcome an obstacle—in this case, fire, mud, or electroshock therapy while racing through 10-12 miles of terrain designed by British Special Forces. “We think of ourselves as a tribe,” he said. Thousands of orange headband-wearing Tough Mudders have even tattooed their bodies with the logo. Mudder up

3. Burst Your Own Bubble

Troy Carter, CEO of Atom Factory, provided some provocative thoughts on the need to maintain “brand integrity,” in a world of constant reinvention. Best known in the entertainment industry as Lady Gaga’s former manager, the entertainment executive said it’s critical to “get outside your bubble—your industry, your job—ask questions.” A man who embraces disruption, Carter said, “I love companies that infringe on other people’s boundaries,” and cited Uber and Warby Parker as two prime examples of brands that are doing just that.

4. Get Your Team Right

Promoting his new book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, president of the Walt Disney and Pixar animation studios, said that everyone—and every organization—has the potential to be creative, but that leaders need to make it safe for people to fail. Mistakes are an indication that you’re innovating and trying something new. He shared his stories about the process of making blockbuster movies like Up and the Toy Story franchise— dissecting the mistakes along the way. In the case of Toy Story 2, the team had a total restart nine months before the delivery date. His advice: find a team that works well together: “Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. A great team will fix it or make it better.”

5. Seek Connected Autonomy

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi began her remarks by emphasizing the need for businesses to create an authentic working environment that aligns with people’s “whole selves.” Speaking of her leadership style, she commented, “A CEO is not a part-time job. You have to be passionate. You have to love what you do.” She also spoke of community values and a “connected autonomy,” that encourages employees to engage emotionally with the PepsiCo corporate brand, but gives them the local autonomy to perform their roles in a way that suits them.

6. Create the Change You Want to See

A recurring theme was how a more authentic form of leadership is taking root – one that has the potential to not only accelerate positive change, but also create more meaningful brand experiences for customers and employees. Translating that impression of “big things to come” into words, Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia -whose pending U.S. Supreme Court decision hasn’t slowed down plans to expand his streaming video company – wrapped up the events of the day with a simple, yet powerful message: “As leaders, we have a strong sense of obligation to create change. We sense the market, we sense the opportunity.” How do we lead the way forward with authenticity? By following our instincts, cultivating empathy, and “living” our brands with passion, purpose, and creativity.

Carolyn Ray is fascinated with authenticity, trust and leadership. With a blend of experience in communications, marketing and branding, she established Interbrand’s global Brand Engagement practice and now leads the Canadian office. 


Managing Director, Interbrand Canada
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