"I can’t wait until I retire so I can finally be myself again."
I heard those words from a colleague at a meeting of a professional group I belong to and sighed with disappointment. I can't imagine carrying the weight of inauthenticity around with me my whole career.
Then again, my expertise is communication—so it may be that I'm better acquainted with the simple value of being yourself than others are. And not just in general: Authenticity is a crucial skill for communicating effectively. That's one of the primary—if often overlooked—reasons why it's so often discussed as a leadership quality.
Unfortunately, many leaders I meet feel the way my colleague does, worried that they too must wear a mask in order to be effective. That isn't true. If you can communicate powerfully—which is to say, authentically—you can lead powerfully. Here are the four top reasons why.
One of the most obvious reasons you should be yourself is to set an example for the rest of your team. If you value being straightforward and authentic, it’s not enough to just say you do—you need to show it. If you communicate candor in your own personal way, you'll provide the model your organization needs to follow. Your team will get their values from you, not your mission statement on the wall.
When I want my clients to be authentic, I ask them to tell me a story about a moment that was especially memorable for them. One recently recounted how a few years ago she was training to run the New York City marathon, at age 50, when Hurricane Sandy hit. The race was cancelled, and she had to train for another year before she could realize her goal. But she was determined, and she was exhilarated when she crossed the finish line. When she told me that story, she was fully in the moment and more authentic than I'd ever seen her.
So instead of grand, generic platitudes about the importance of goals, tell your team a real story from your own life—involving a goal you actually worked toward—that reveals who you are. That’s the type of candor you want to spread throughout your organization.
When you stand up and speak to your team as their leader, you have their attention. But what about keeping it? If you stay official and buttoned-up all the time, you'll probably have a flat delivery. After a while, you start to sound like you’re droning on and on.
Buy in professional settings, we often imagine we need to adopt a more formal—and inauthentic—approach. Here's how an "official" explanation of a restaurant experience might sound, just to take an example totally unrelated to business: "I enjoyed the food. The service was excellent." A more genuine, inviting account might go, "The sear on the scallops was just perfect, and the waiter was right there the moment I wanted another glass of wine." It's harder to tune out when you're offering something real, not canned.
Being yourself simply means talking to your team like you’re talking to friends. Years ago, I was at a mystery writers conference. One of the stars of the conference was Phyllis Whitney, one of the most accomplished writers in the field at the time. She was asked, "What grade level do you write for, Grade 9?" No," she responded. "I always write as if I were talking to a friend." That's the way you should speak, too.
When you're more conversational, you'll naturally have more rhythm. You will naturally gesture. You will naturally tell stories—about what you just heard, about what happened just last week, about past experiences of your own. You won't need to manufacture those things—or find other things to talk about while you avoid them.
After all, using tons of complicated business jargon is often a red flag that something's wrong or making you uncomfortable, and you're trying to hide it. That never works.
Finally, you should be yourself for a straightforward personal reason: your own comfort and ease. You have so much more to think about when you wear a mask. You hold your body rigidly in position. You hold your facial expressions deliberately. You hold back the small bursts of unscripted behavior that can break through your control. No wonder you’re exhausted!
By being yourself—warts and all—you’ll get through your day with so much less tension in your body and so much less weight on your spirit. And when you open up your mouth to speak, it'll come through. That makes being authentic a win-win. You win by keeping your colleagues and listeners engaged and by building their trust, and you win by allowing yourself to speak more fluidly and honestly. Don't wait until you retire to start being yourself.