Some of my favorite snacks growing up were Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit-Loops, and Pop Tarts. When possible, my mom would try to steer me towards “real” fruit, but I would always remind her that the snacks I loved were made with “real” fruit.

Not too long ago, my health conscious friend Darrell forwarded me an article about Kellogg being sued for deceptive advertising because of their use of “made with real fruit.” I immediately went to my pantry to review the label on my fruit snacks; and here is what I found:

Go figure, my mother was right. “Made With Real Fruit” meant fruit concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup (really?), natural flavor (Isn’t that what the “real fruit” is for?), and color (red 40, yellow 5&6, and blue 1 – my favorite).

As I dug a little deeper, I realized that there were several companies in hot water for making claims about their products that were not quite accurate. Have you seen the following claims on some of your favorite products: “all natural,” “sugar free,” “no sugar added,” “fat free,” or “organic?” While some companies have rightfully earned the freedom to use these claims, other companies are putting consumers, their employees, and investors at risk by stretching the truth or not “keeping it real.”

This issue of not “keeping it real” has gone beyond product claims to employee and company behavior. Over the last couple of years, people have developed a deep distrust of companies, notably banks and mortgage companies and their leaders. The absence of integrity as a core value for a company and its’ leaders has led to the skyrocketing of “authenticity” as a key leadership behavior. Organizations are looking for leaders who are self-aware, speak with courage and candor, and practice integrity when interacting with customers, employees and stockholders.

Regardless of your role or title, authenticity is an important behavior to exhibit. In their article “Be Yourself, but Carefully,” Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann state, “Authenticity begins with self awareness: knowing who you are – your values, emotions, and competencies – and how you’re perceived by others.”

In my quest to be an authentic person and leader, I came up with five steps to help achieve my goal of always being the “real” me.

1) It starts with knowing your story and telling your story.

Your life story is one of the best guides for discovering your authentic self. It provides the context for what makes you the way you are. Your triumphs and disappointments point you towards your inspiration and passion, and through telling your story, you are able to help others find theirs. You can start the discovery process by answering the following questions:

  • Which people and experiences in my life generated “real” emotions from me?
  • What are my values? How do they shape my behavior and decisions?

2) The real you is the best you.

Discovering the real you requires a mix of self-reflection, self-disclosure and self-awareness. I have found self-awareness to be somewhat tricky, so what has helped me with my self-awareness is completing the following statements:

  • I am most happy when I ____________
  • I am at my worst when I ____________
  • When I am being the real me I am ____________
  • When I am not being the real me I am ___________
  • When describing me, people often say that I am ________

3) The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

One of the best ways to be authentic is by being honest with yourself and others about your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Denial is one of the biggest hindrances of authenticity. I try to have at least one person in my life that I can be completely honest with about the good, the bad and the ugly. This person (and I am blessed to have more than one) also helps keep me honest by holding me accountable for my actions.

4) There is no “I” in team.

Building on my previous point, authentic people realize that they have to be willing to listen to feedback. One of the best tools for discovering your authentic self is getting feedback from friends, family, and co-workers. These individuals can provide support, guidance and perspective.

5) Consider Your Audience

There are two points I would like to highlight as it relates to your audience. First, despite the multitude of benefits that comes with being authentic, you still have to be mindful of what you are sharing, who you are sharing it with and when you are sharing it. What helps me avoid falling into a hole on this topic is asking myself “What is my purpose for sharing this information?” Sometimes “keeping it real” can go wrong if things are being shared for the wrong reason. Secondly, being genuine and authentic helps build trust and confidence, which are two critical components for establishing your brand and developing great personal and professional relationships.

A brand is a person’s instinctual reaction to a product, service, or company. Similar to Pop Tart, you too can be a brand. A person can have an instinctual reaction to your appearance, your words and/or your behavior. The foundation of a brand is trust. The foundation of a good relationship is also trust. Your personal brand is directly correlated to your relationship with people. People will trust your brand when their experience consistently meets or beats their expectations.

When I discovered that “made with real fruit” was a false claim, those products no longer met my expectations, and I severed my relationship with any and all companies that unjustly made these claims.

Do not run the risk of someone doing the same to you because you didn’t keep it real.

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