02/19/2016 02:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Instead of Trying to Put Your Best Face Forward, Consider Putting Your Real Face Forward


I'm no math professor, but there are some equations that are easier to master than most. Here's one formula that has worked for me every single time: the more respect I give away, the more I get in return.

Obviously, the math isn't the hard part here; it's the whole giving away-respect thing that gets people excited. Many of us hesitate to trust another person automatically (some would say blindly) because we're scared. We're scared others will abuse the trust or betray it for their own ends. This is normal human instinct, but there is another way of looking at it.

Abuse of trust is the ultimate betrayal, but the perpetrator pays the bigger price: once you've figured out what has happened, you're out of his/her life for a long time. The trust that was freely given now must be earned, and the counter starts in the negative numbers. Such a loss is almost impossible to recover from.

The best way I've found of executing this strategy is to be myself in every setting possible--which for many people is counterintuitive. Normally we have a work persona and a private persona. In many ways we are two different people (at least). My personae, however, are very closely aligned, particularly as a CEO, because I believe there's only so long you can wear two different faces. It must be exhausting to divide yourself in two (or three!) all the time, to always be on guard, separating what one or the other persona has done or might do. That I choose to be who I am everywhere just makes things easier; I don't have to worry about it.

Sure, when I go into a boardroom I know how to behave there, and yes, there's a different filter that goes on in that boardroom, one that's more aligned with people's expectations. But my shareholders see what I'm doing in public--on Twitter, on blogs, in my involvement in charities and community programs and sports--and I couldn't hide any of that stuff even if I wanted to. Yet there is nothing to hide because that's who I am.

Why do people feel compelled to act in a dual-personality way in the first place? A lot of it is expectations about how a CEO should behave, how a CEO should dress, what kind of car a CEO should drive, where a CEO's office has to be.

I recall sitting in one of those traditional downtown private clubs, waiting to meet a colleague for a business discussion. The rules were simple: men must wear a tie, electronic devices were completely forbidden, only the newspapers that were provided were allowed, no whispering, no laughing--heck, no briefcase! You get the picture.

My host apologized for asking to meet me there because she knew it was not my style. It wasn't her style either, but in her business she needed to be perceived in a certain way. We agreed that being perceived in different ways to accommodate the situation is a skill leaders have to learn to be successful in the corporate world.

But imagine how liberating it would be to be you, always, no matter who's in front of you or where you are. You know that feeling when you get home and you breathe a loud sigh and collapse for a moment. What is that? Exhaustion? Relief? This fatigue comes in part from all of the energy needed to keep up a façade. The hard work of being something other than yourself. Imagine if you could be you. Always. You wouldn't make that funny sound when you got home anymore, would you? Staff do need to know who the real person is behind the title of CEO, or any leader for that matter.

You're making decisions about people's lives and welfare, decisions that will affect their families. You're making decisions that have an impact on them and their world beyond the workplace, whether you see it that way or not. If you want them to trust you, you need to earn their trust and be yourself with them.

But it is not advantageous to connect too deeply at the individual level. A clear line must be drawn, and the CEO is the one who has to draw it. Why? Because if it is important to get to know one another, it's even more important to know our purpose, our reason for being. We are here to achieve our vision, to work for our customers, to get the job done.

It only sounds complex: we're just talking about being yourself and being honest all the time, with your overall priorities and goals constantly in focus. If you can manage to implement this principle on a daily basis, it becomes the most rewarding way of working and living for yourself, your staff and ultimately your company.

It's good to know what to expect from others, and from yourself too.

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