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No Shortcuts to Being Authentic

When people talk of personal branding, my impulse is to advise them to develop a character instead, before they think of branding themselves.

Those who are taken in by personal branding, however, ignore me and many of them go on to become fairly popular brands unto themselves, as measured by the number of followers on social media.It is relatively easy to be popular on social media,  given all the tools and templates one can use to generate seemingly relevant content. Generative AI makes the task ever so much simpler.

Popularity, however, is a fleeting thing. Today you may have thousands of followers and maybe even some engagement. Tomorrow you could be a megabyte lost in a universe of petabytes that is the Internet. But even at the height of your popularity, you need to ask the question of what benefit, if at all did the number of followers do for your business.

Often the answer is “I dont know.”

This hasn’t prevented those bent on personal branding to sound authoritative and knowledgeable on any subject. Take crisis management, for example. It used to be that you’d need to cut your teeth on several crises before you’d be a respected voice. With social media all you need to do, even if you’re just an intern, is prompt ChatGPT and you can easily come up with a list of, say, 7 Deadly Sins of Crisis Management and many in the audience will think you slay as a crisis management expert.

These same Personal Branders would probably use the same skills to lecture us about authenticity as well. As they used to say, on the Internet nobody knows if you’re a dog.

So where does this leave authenticity? Many years ago, when I participated in a leadership course by the London School of Economics, the instruction I found most useful was “be yourself, more, but with skill.” In today’s world, where the skills to promote and project are so easily acquired it pays to focus more on being ourselves, more.

It’s a philosophical question but on a personal and on a corporate or brand level, this - how to be ourselves, more –  is exactly the question that we should grapple with if we want to sound authentic. 

The Arthur W. Page Society speaks of the need to define and activate the corporate character to inform everything an enterprise says or does. This is sound advice, as there are too many corporations who try to burnish their image with endless content on ESG, Sustainability and Purpose end up sounding soulless and inauthentic.

To be sure, it is a difficult process as it involves the C-Suite momentarily setting aside their Corporate Warrior roles to grapple with existentialist questions about their enterprise. It is necessary though if they want to sound authentic.

Going through the process for the very few of my clients who were brave enough to go through it was like taking a cold shower - painful when doing it but feeling great afterwards because they truly knew themselves as a corporation. All they now needed was to be themselves more. The skills they can acquire by hiring young bright staffers or engaging PR consultants.

At the end of the day, there are no short cuts to authenticity. It is not some communication or branding exercise, it starts with your character. If you’ve not developed one or are not planning too then reconcile yourself to being ersatz rather than authentic.