Defining Authenticity

By Chris Marks

Since launching Blue Note  Ventures, the most common question has been, “how will you know an authentic leader when you see one?” While I’m happy to provide some thoughts on the topic, a couple of clarifications are in order:

First, I am not in the business of identifying who is an authentic leader and who is not. Far from it. My goal, and the purpose behind Blue Note Ventures, is to work with entrepreneurs who aspire to be better and more authentic leaders, and to support their journey.

Second, recognizing that authentic leadership is aspirational, my goal is to do my best to model that behavior in my own fund, as well as in my relationships with the entrepreneurs I work with. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Is it scary to put it in writing so that everyone who reads this can hold me accountable and point out my shortcomings? You better believe it.

Ok, with that covered, a few thoughts on authentic leadership.

When I started to define authentic leadership for myself, I compiled a list of about 30 different traits gleaned from the CEOs that I had worked with over the last 15 years. After parsing through the list, and debating it with several different people, I landed on 5 traits that I think are absolutely essential to authentic leadership:

  1. Self-Awareness. The key to being authentic is showing up as your true self (as Scott Kriens so eloquently stated in his earlier post). If you don’t know who you are, shortcomings and all, it is a tough thing to do. If a leader doesn’t know their own weaknesses, it is also much less likely they will fill those gaps as they build their team.
  2. Courage. Showing up as yourself, warts and all, takes courage. Standing up for what you know is right, even when it is not convenient, takes courage. If you don’t understand, go back to point number one and take a closer look.
  3. Transparency. Open communication within a company helps create an environment of trust. It lowers the anxiety and minimizes suspicion. People may not like what they hear, but they are confident there is only one version of the truth. This is particularly important in the fast-paced world of start-ups, where decisions need to be made in a hurry, and alignment is crucial.
  4. Humility. By definition, anyone who thinks they can change the world with an idea and a little capital is confident — bordering on arrogant. This goes with the territory, and usually serves an early stage CEO well. With that being said, the authentic leaders I know are not driven by personal accolades. They are driven to help others succeed. They gravitate towards people who are “smarter” than them. And above all, they naturally put their egos aside in pursuit of the greater good.
  5. Passion. Early in my career, someone said to me, “You can’t delegate passion.” And it’s true (believe me, I’ve tried). An authentic leader builds their company because they truly want to solve the problem at hand. It is the deeper “why” behind the business plan. It is what gets them out of bed in the morning, and what gets baked into the DNA of the company culture. You can’t always see it — but believe me, you know if it’s missing.

So, that’s my current list. Aspirational for sure, and a bit daunting when taken as a whole. With that being said, every step matters, and when it comes to leadership, one step usually leads naturally to another. The key is to be intentional, define your path, and take the first step. Maybe, just maybe, we can help you along the way.