There seems to be a popular new buzzword in corporate leadership-speak: Branding Yourself. As one of two guest speakers recently for an event attended by over 150 professionals, I could not help but muse over how different the topics were. One was about how to brand yourself, while my topic was about authentic leadership through love for self and others. After the event, a few guests came over to me and shared how they felt that being true to yourself would naturally result in a positive personal brand. “Why should we have to ‘brand’ ourselves, like a product”, they asked? It sounded like a fair point. Are these opposing concepts? I wondered.
Studies show that the leaders we trust, love and follow, share the trait of authenticity—that natural ability to be who they are. It is difficult to trust a leader who wears a mask, because one senses a disconnect. Integrity implies a harmony between thoughts, words and deeds which is at the heart of being authentic. A top female banking executive found her entire team rebelling against her and refusing to co-operate. She could not understand the issue. At work she put on a ‘brand’ of being friendly and caring toward the team. At home, she gossiped about them and referred to them in disparaging terms. She could not understand why her team would not trust her. As we coached, she came to understand the lack of integrity in her actions and thoughts. “But how would they pick that up”?, she asked. Humans have an intelligence that stretches beyond the five senses—we have the ability to sense energy. This is what makes authenticity key to respected leadership. The insight helped her to integrate and align herself from within, which then led to happier and more productive relationships with her team, and a greater sense of peace within herself. It took time, but it worked.
Branding is defined as “the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products”. Sounds good in principle, especially in this web-world of social media. Except that we are not products–we are human beings. The problem is this: If one’s virtues and values are not fully aligned to the personal brand that one seeks to promote, an authenticity issue will arise.
Living your values
I am privileged to work with many executive leaders who automatically hold a powerful personal brand just because of who they are as human beings, and the values that they live by. An example of one in particular, inspires great trust from his team. What I noticed, is that in lies in the little things that he does. He keeps to his word. Always. He responds to his emails and is respectful. He has open, courageous conversations with his staff. He does not engage in game-playing, gossip or passive aggression. He seeks to grow others. As a result, he inspires great trust 360 degrees at work: from his team, his customers and his suppliers. His personal brand is like gold—and yet he has never actively worked on ‘branding’ himself but has committed instead to deep, honest inner personal development. His excellent ‘brand’ outcome is simply the result of being clear and true to his values and virtues. There is no cherry-picking when it comes to living that out. An executive who only makes time to respond respectfully to his customers and influential seniors, but who treats his suppliers and staff poorly, will have ‘holes’ in his brand. His selfish motive will expose the inauthenticity. At a collective level, that can easily be seen in various corporate cultures as well.
One client had an experience with an HR manager who made a commitment but did not follow through with her word and instead engaged in deception for her own benefit, and not in the highest interest of the organisation. No matter many statements she makes around fostering integrity in company culture, it is difficult for her stakeholders to take her seriously. Her ‘brand’ has become one of untrustworthiness. Studies show that the millennial generation in particular, do not respect job titles and hierarchical structures in organisations. They respect authenticity. I have many young millennial clients who confirm what the stats say. Therefore authentic leadership is not only key to building engagement, motivation and trust in teams, but is also important to the attraction and retention of young talent.
Perhaps ‘branding yourself’ and ‘being yourself do not have to be seen as mutually exclusive approaches. As a leader it is important to be aware of your ‘brand’, especially with the advent of social media. However focussing on developing a personal brand to the exclusion of proper ‘inner’ work risks inauthenticity. It is a superficial approach with questionable sustainability. The bridge between being yourself and developing a positive personal brand lies in living your values. Consistently. This comes from deep inner work, and nurturing values that incorporate a selfless contribution to others in a way that is natural to you. If you do that, your personal brand will emerge organically and authentically. The greatest most respected leaders across time, whose personal brands live on decades after they have left us, are powerful case studies in point.
This article is written by Nerisha Maharaj, Executive Coach and Author of Self-Love: The Authentic Path to Conscious Leadership.