Being Authentic Entrepreneurs

Authenticity is one of the most commonly uttered buzz-phrases at any management or leadership seminar, and while this ubiquity may banish it to the realms of ‘blue sky thinking’ (aka management-meeting-related-drivel), the truth is that authenticity is hugely important for entrepreneurs.

A Philosophy Lesson

In the classics, if we examine existentialist philosophy and aesthetics we see that authenticity is espoused as one of the highest virtues; it means your ‘work’ is faithful to your own personality, spirit and character despite the external pressures placed on you.  The great minds of philosophy often used authenticity as an evaluation tool to examine artists and thinkers, but it’s just as relevant in today’s entrepreneurial world.

Why are Entrepreneurs Inauthentic

The cult of the ‘alpha personality,’ is an ever-present shadow to most businesses.  I see it with unfortunate regularity in companies ranging from start-ups through to multinationals.  How does it manifest? Leaders adopt a persona they feel is required of them rather than who they are.  Often you see this as being the ‘ultra tough’ leader… the dragon… the iron fist.  In practice, most of the entrepreneurs I’ve met who have a public-persona like that are rarely like that in real life- quite the opposite and perhaps would do better being themselves.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately) human beings are a great deal smarter than we think we are, and as part of our primal mechanisms for detecting friend and foe, we’re hugely attuned to whether someone is being authentic (or not) in their approach to us- so in most-cases, if you’re acting? The other side will almost certainly detect it.

The First Step…

I recently had a conversation with Vladimir Potanin, a billionaire entrepreneur with hugely diverse business interests.  He told me, “… there are no good musicians who do not have a good ear, no artists without a great imagination, no writers without an excellent command of the language. The same goes for our trade. It is not enough to know how to use a calculator or build sound financial models. You need to have vision. You should look at a business process as if it were a living thing; you need to sense its music. You know, a good chess player does not need to spend a great deal of time calculating – sometimes one look at the chessboard is enough to know if a combination is good or bad…”

If you’ve had the spark to become an entrepreneur, chances are there was some vision, some idea, some inspiration that began your journey.   You need to really keep this in mind – what was the real reason you got into entrepreneurship? This is the fuel that will promote your passion more than anything else.  As Potanin told me, “I made a principled decision that none of my wealth will be passed on as inheritance, that my capital will work for philanthropic causes. In other words, philanthropy is the reason I make money.”

For you? It may be philanthropy, it may be a secure future for your family, it may be changing the world with your idea, or even just proving to yourself that you can accomplish something.   Whatever it is, however grand, however mundane, be honest about it, and keep it front and centre of your work.

Passion & Authenticity

Entrepreneurial businesses change rapidly, often come with stress, pressure and a host of challenges which- to the founder, are ‘just part of the course…’ but which- to the stakeholders in a business can disconnect, demotivate and more.

University of Houston Professor, Brené Brown, talks regularly on how empathy fuels connection.   And those empathetic connections are the key to bringing a whole company on the same journey.  Speak to the team of any successful entrepreneurial business, whether that’s Google, Facebook, SpaceX, Salesforce or otherwise and you’ll get a sense that the company lives and breathes their founder’s personality(ies) and passion.  That’s no accident, that’s from every ounce of the company resonating with the values, ethics, strengths and flaws of the visionary or visionaries behind it.

Re-Training Yourself

Habits are hard to change, but not impossible.   Many of the CEO’s, founders and leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with have embarked on this journey, and here are some of the questions I use with them, that can help to add authenticity to your leadership style.

Who is the best version of you?

The reality is, we’re different people in different situations- that could be as parents, friends, employees or in a host of other situations.  Which is the version of you that you’re most-proud of? Be honest… it’s probably not the one you bring to the office, and that needs to change.

Who do you resonate with?

Whether in the workplace or your personal world, who do you resonate with and why? Who do you connect with? Who do you feel at ease with? Who do you feel open around? Examine why you feel like that, and how that individual is with you that results in those emotions in yourself.

What makes you vulnerable?

Your vulnerability makes you human, it’s one of the unifying things that we can all relate to.  Vulnerability builds empathy and even love!  You need to be introspective and realise what makes you vulnerable, what are the things you’re not confident about, the things which ‘hit a nerve,’ the things which make you angry, make you emotional… You have to let people see this to a degree that you’re comfortable with.  Stories of challenges you’ve faced [or are facing] personally and emotionally are experiences that people can resonate with.  It’s no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg for example, is so open about his home life, his challenges as a new parent and more – he’s being himself, and that’s good for business! 

Do you have a safe space to explore yourself?

It’s pretty lonely at the top.  One of the universal truths of any organisation is that the higher you get, the smaller the peer-network, the smaller the support-network for you (as an individual).  The most successful leaders I meet are the ones who invest in that safe-space- which could take the form of formal paid coaching or mentoring, or even making sure they have peers they can speak to regularly through networks like TiE, YPO or otherwise.  These are the spaces you can be open, learn about yourself, others and genuinely become a stronger leader as a result.

(In)Authenticity is hard work!

Even if none of the above convince you, the very act of not living authentically can be phenomenally hard work.  We only have a limited cognitive capacity, and using that to manage the complexities of one person (you) is already a significant feat.

As the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne once said “No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.