In today’s workplace, there’s arguably more pressure than ever for leaders to succeed.

The arena is crammed full of challenges:

Investors often demand quarterly gains rather than long-term growth.

Customers clamor for newer, better, and cheaper products and services.

Employees lobby for flexible hours, higher pay, and other benefits that can jeopardize profits.

Activists agitate for social causes where, regardless of which position leaders take, some constituency is bound to be offended.

It’s a dangerous environment for anyone who’s tempted to cut corners—especially corners that involve integrity.

Sabrina Horn offers some timely advice. She’s author of MAKE IT, DON’T FAKE IT: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success.

As a C-suite advisor, entrepreneur and communications expert, she gives leaders the tools to resist “short hacks” and the courage to lead with authenticity and integrity.

An award-winning CEO in her own right, Sabrina is well versed in how to build and maintain a reputation of trust.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Leading with authenticity, you point out, is not as simple as just being a good person and having morals. Can you elaborate?

Sabrina Horn: By definition, leading with authenticity means you’re operating from a basis of the truth and reality. But what do we know about the truth and reality? They can be very tough to face.

Doing a layoff because your company isn’t performing, or recalling a product because of an engineering flaw, are problems no leader looks forward to dealing with. Driven to succeed and under pressure, it can be tempting to ignore the problem, distort the facts, and minimize the situation. The trouble is, the truth always comes out. And when it does, you’ll be exposed for your short hack and sabotage your success. All leaders can benefit from advice to gain the confidence and resilience to move forward with integrity and defeat the temptation to fake it in those moments where confidence and information may be lacking.

Duncan: What’s the difference between “faking it” and lying?

Horn: The phrase “fake it till you make it” has origins in early 1920s psychotherapy.  Alfred Adler developed a technique called “acting as if” to help patients practice desired behaviors so they became healthy habits. This can be a productive form of self-help, a way of “faking it” that boosts the confidence needed ultimately to enable authentic actions. Unfortunately, the phrase mutated through social media and pop culture to make it seem like sage business advice—license to lie to get ahead.  “Faking it” now advises doing and saying anything for personal or business gain. It’s the worst business advice ever.

Duncan: A lot is said these days about the so-called “imposter syndrome.” In your view, what exactly is that, and how can today’s workers deal with it?

Sabrina Horn

Horn: Imposter Syndrome is the agonizing self-delusion that you don’t deserve your earned success, that it was all a fluke, and that you’ll be exposed as a fraud. It affects 70% of all high achievers and disproportionately affects women and minorities.

To stop feeling like an imposter, first stop thinking like one. Record a list of all your achievements and listen to the recording. Talk with your mentors to share your feelings.  They have likely been in your shoes, and they may give you the perspective you need to regain your confidence.

Duncan: Most everyone is willing to at least pay lip service to the idea of integrity in business. What do you see as tell-tale signs that a company is really serious about embracing integrity in its everyday business practices?

Horn: A company is committed to integrity when its CEO and leaders are humble enough to own up to their mistakes, take responsibility for outcomes, and create a path forward. Such a company is led by people comfortable knowing they don’t have all the answers but create a collaborative learning culture in their organization.

Such enterprises typically enjoy high employee retention rates because they embrace an authentic employee experience.

Most important, an authentic company develops a terrific brand because it maintains a customer experience grounded in a strong set of values.

Duncan: Some people say that “on-the-job-training” is just a fancy type of “faking it till you make it.” What’s your view on the process of learning to lead?

Horn: No matter how much schooling you have, how much management experience you have, or how many executives’ shoulders you have looked over, nothing can completely prepare you for a top job. Even experienced serial CEOs know their job will be different in each company they run. The only comprehensive training for a leadership position can be spelled out in three initials: OJT. You learn the role by playing it, in real time. In this sense, you are always becoming a leader, learning, growing your skillset, solving new problems.

Duncan: You point out that “‘acting as if’ to innocently build one’s confidence has turned into faking it by exaggerating, minimizing, or otherwise fabricating the truth at the expense of others.” What can high profile leaders do to explicitly expose such bad behavior and model the kind of authenticity you advocate?

Horn: A strong values-based culture will keep you and your employees from faking it. Make it clear that you and everyone else in the organization must honor and protect those values. In such a culture, the fakers will surface themselves and either self-select out or give you the opportunity to help them exit.

Duncan: What’s your advice to business leaders in dealing with (real or perceived) gender or racial bias without playing the victim card?

Horn: Always use the channels available to you to report and resolve bad behavior.  Calmly and directly speak with the individual involved. Also, identify those closest to any person who displays gender or racial bias. Prevail upon them to exercise a positive influence to arrest that behavior.

Address these issues as a team or departmental business problem rather than a personal issue.

Finally, remember that, as a leader, you set the standard. Model inclusive, bias-free behavior. Fail to do so, and you become complicit in the unacceptable behavior.

Duncan: You suggest that a business plan should contain a list of core values. How does that differ from the typical values statement?

Horn: In a business plan, your core values may be a short list with a brief explanation by way of background and rationale. Explain how you want the “core” values to create and infuse the culture you want to create as well as the business processes used to build and run your business. Core values are the foundation of what your brand ultimately becomes.

A values statement is a formal statement—a credo, really—that is highly visible to all company stakeholders. It makes explicit what you and your company stand for and what you are committed to delivering to every stakeholder. It details the essence of your brand promise and value proposition.

Duncan: What can leaders do to ensure that the values of honesty, transparency, and fair play permeate the organizational culture and are translated into actual behaviors?

Horn: This is truly hard work that takes time and relentless effort.

Begin by codifying business processes that require the behaviors you want people to emulate. Write down the processes and associated behaviors. Provide multiple examples to illustrate each behavior. Share the document quarterly. Discuss with new employees and current staff alike. Make sure the values are explained and visible everywhere.

Next, establish champions—employees who really get it and will support, correct, and coach the behaviors you want. Public recognition of employees who exemplify company values in their successes will motivate others to behave similarly. Performance reviews that evaluate employees, including the leaders, on how effectively they embody company values reinforce desired behavior while offering a check of bad behavior.

A strong board of directors and advisors can also help to keep the leaders on the straight and narrow.

Duncan: You’ve spent 25 years as a leader in public relations, a profession known for its spin. How have you managed to steer clear of fakery?

Horn: To be clear, there were many times as a PR pro and as a young inexperienced CEO that I stretched the truth or shoved certain problems under the rug. We all approach, straddle, and sometimes cross the line at which fakery appears because it can be easier than dealing with reality.

Fortunately, I learned quite quickly that faking it only makes bad situations worse. Faking it doesn’t help you make it at all. Despite the stereotypes, the best PR is never about spin. Rather, it’s always about getting to the truth, understanding it, dealing with it, communicating it, and finding a path forward.

Duncan: What can business leaders do immediately to resist the temptation to fake it?

Horn: Think about the last time you faked it. Ask yourself why you felt you had to fake it. Were you under pressure, afraid, insecure, embarrassed?  Drill into that trigger and consider doing the following:

  • Disarm fear and organize risk by acquiring more information. Know what you don’t know. Further organize your risks by asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen and how you can and will recover from that “worst thing.”
  • Develop contingency plans to manage potential risks if they become reality. Such plans will give you the confidence to move forward by creating a sense of self-efficacy—the belief that you can do what needs to be done.
  • Talk to your mentors to get a reality check. They will tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear.
  • Acquire a bias for humility and ask questions. Asking questions is a hallmark of strength and authenticity, not weakness. Admit mistakes and ask for help.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan
Latest posts by Rodger Dean Duncan (see all)