PowerCues_72dpiWho is the world’s most influential leader?  According to our highly unscientific survey last week – a contest we ran in order to give away five copies of my new book, Power Cues – it’s Jesus by a whisker, followed closely by Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.  Martin Luther King, Jr, the Dalai Lama, the current Pope, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, and Mom also received multiple votes.  There were also two votes for you – that is, Everyman or Everywoman.  Congratulations!

All in all, there were some sixty nominations, with a surprisingly wide slice of history and humanity represented, from Alexander the Great to Golda Meir and Mark Zuckerman.  Florence Nightingale, Cicero, and the Sultan of Oman also got nods.

Now that the dust has settled, and the five free books are in the mail (just as soon as you send us your addresses, Vijeet Rathi, Valentine Low, Alexandre Campos, Jesus Tejas, and Lia Eliana!) it’s worth asking the question, what does it take to be an influential leader today?  And my answer is something I call radical authenticity.

I believe that an unintended consequence of the radically interconnected era we live in is that leadership now demands not just authenticity, but radical authenticity.  What is it?  I think it has four key factors.

1.Radical authenticity means managing your body language.

It’s the nonverbal conversation that will make or break you as a communicator. That’s really what’s radical about the new authenticity. Faking it won’t work any more, at least not for the long haul. The nonverbal conversation is where authenticity is created or destroyed.

Understanding and controlling this second conversation are thus the keys to leadership, because they are not something that you can leave to chance or the unconscious.

You can no longer rely on common sense or instinct or winging it as you once might have done. With camcorders and YouTube everywhere, you have to assume that your life as a leader is almost entirely transparent. Leaders who rely on ad-libbing and improvisation risk looking unprepared and stilted. The irony of leadership in the media age is that winging it looks fake. Only the prepared can look authentic.

2. Radical authenticity means preparing for the moment, not just being in it.

What we all do, as unconscious experts of the nonverbal communication of emotions, is ascribe intent to what we see. We don’t think to ourselves, Oh, I see a slumped shoulder and a bowed head. I sense trouble. Instead, we jump immediately to intent, decoding what we see: Uh-oh, Jones is in trouble. This could be bad.

In this way, authenticity is hard because we think it’s all about being, but it’s really all about doing. We have to learn to do new things that our unconscious minds or evolution haven’t prepared us for.

3.  Radical authenticity means using your instincts consciously.

Because our instincts can betray us, we have to learn how to manage them. We must be able to have the two conversations – content and body language – together in a controlled, useful, conscious way. That’s the essence of leadership communications, and it’s a tall order. How can we make the unconscious conscious without losing spontaneity, power, and the appearance of ease?

Here’s where the paradox of leadership comes in. Because we humans tend to interpret fumbling, hesitations, and sloppiness as evidence of lack of preparedness, inauthenticity, and amateurishness, the leaders who wing it instead of preparing always fail to impress. The ones who rehearse, role-play, and prepare with real passion are the ones who connect with their public, their audiences, and their followers—and appear authentic.

4.  Radical authenticity means making what’s staged look impromptu.

We want authentic people as leaders, and what the world doesn’t realize is how hard it is to appear that way. It takes an understanding of how communications works and the willingness to practice it. There’s nothing spontaneous about authenticity in this televised age.

Authenticity is genuineness. The shortcut we use to determine it in the people around us is consistency in message and body language—does this person appear to mean what she says?

The way to look authentic—radically authentic—then is to practice. Your body must get the muscle memory of standing, walking, and talking in the ways that it will during the real event or occasion. If it does, then it can show up with some authority and presence, and your tribe will interpret that as authenticity, if the (more comfortable) body language does in fact match the message. That is the kind of important issue that gets answered by rehearsal.

If you rehearse, you and your body can focus on the moment when you’re actually delivering your message. That greatly increases the chances that you’ll show up as authentic. In a radically connected world, personal authenticity is table stakes.

What you need to lead is radical authenticity.   

A part of this post is adapted from my new book, Power Cues:  The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, published May 13, 2014 by Harvard. You can order it here.  




  1. Dang, I missed the voting in your survey but here’s my $0.02…. I read once that a survey of historians rated Alexander the Great the most influential leader. His teacher was Aristotle and his teacher was Plato and his teacher was Socrates. It’s through Alexander’s conquests that Greek philosophy is pervasive in the Western world.

    Also, Jesus of Nazareth would probably lost to history but for two other people: Paul of Tarsus and (a few hundred years later) Emperor Constantine. By the way, the Christian Bible was written in not in Aramaic, not in Hebrew, and not in Latin, but in Greek. Why? Because of the influence of Alexander the Great in the region a few hundred years before it was written…

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