In recent months, there have been far too many examples of people leading companies who don’t actually back up their words with meaningful action. From Thinx founder Miki Agrawal to Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, audiences have seen just how easy it is for leaders to say one thing and do another.
Specifically, Huffington, who’s on Uber’s board, publicly defended that ride-sharing company against charges of sexual harassment; Agrawal, whose company makes “period panties,” faces formal charges of her own regarding alleged sexual harassment of her employees.
These women have preached the value of feminism and women’s empowerment while simultaneously exploiting women workers or denying systemic issues of sexism at a company with a reportedly toxic work environment.
And that’s disturbing, because when you’re the leader of a company, you have an incredible opportunity to consistently create content (Huffington) or put a public face (Agrawal) to the values and practices of your team. It’s exciting to give interviews and to write articles about the unique experiences you’ve had — to share advice with your audience and promote the innovative practices your company embraces.
But, if you aren’t careful, your messaging may become more aspirational than realistic. You may be explaining the value of something you and your team aren’t ready or willing to practice yourselves; and, before you know it, you’ll have fallen into the hypocrisy trap we’ve seen too many startup leaders fall into already.
This doesn’t mean it’s time to freak out and stop writing or speaking about your ideas, experiences or company altogether. It just means that authentic thought leadership is more important than ever — both for your audience’s benefit and for your brand’s integrity. Here’s how to do it:
1. Write and speak about what you know.
This seems easy, but too many company leaders forget it. If you aren’t the expert on something, steer clear of creating content that tells others what to do and how to do it. So, if you’re not the tech expert in your company, don’t write about tech; crowdsource your content creation, and invite your CTO to take the reins on that topic instead.
It’s easy to dip your toes into fraud-infused waters when you’re writing (or speaking) about a topic you’re not totally familiar with, so start by staying true to topics you are comfortable with. When in doubt, ask yourself whether you’d be excited or scared if someone approached you to talk candidly about this same topic.
2. Workshop ideas from your team.
Beyond writing just about what you know is writing about what you excel at. For an objective opinion about the awesomeness of what you do as a leader — rather than merely your personal reflections on that topic — ask your team members.
If your team tells you that you’re really amazing at giving thoughtful, detailed feedback that helps them grow, share your advice on how other leaders can do the same.
On the other hand, if your team tells you that your delegating ability could use some work, speaking or writing about how well you delegate will only come back to bite you. Soliciting this feedback from your team can be helpful to you both for authentic content creation and for self-improvement. So, use it as an opportunity to do both.
3. Read your own content, and ask what you could do better.
Once you’ve written something, whether it’s a column or speech, read it through and ask yourself whether you can honestly stand by every single sentence. Did you write that companies should adopt flexible schedules while you hold your own employees to a strict 9 to 5?
Be your own harshest critic and comb through your articles looking for something to call yourself out on. Avoid preaching what you’re not willing to practice. And don’t let your content limit you from aspiring for something better.
4. Acknowledge when you’re not perfect.
It’s okay to want a better world than the one you’re currently in. Similarly, it’s okay to discuss ideas and company practices that you’re still working on — as long as you’re honest about your shortcomings, and acknowledge when you’re not perfect.
As a leader, you are perfectly within your rights to share your thoughts about what other leaders should consider doing — even if you aren’t able to do the same every single time. Just don’t try to pass yourself off as someone without flaws. Simple phrasing like “I need to be better about this” can accomplish that goal, and humanize your brand to your audience at the same time.
I saw a great example of this on Twitter from adventur.es owner and Influence & Co. advisor Brent Beshore. He shared advice for success in business with a college senior, and as part of that. advised detailed note-taking in all meetings. When asked whether he himself always takes notes, Beshore admitted that he tries to do that but sees room for improvement.
The message here, then, is, don’t let recent stories of company leaders and founders who fail to practice what they preach deter you from sharing your own content/wisdom with your audience.
Be honest with yourself about which parts of your messaging are aspirational and realistic, and work with your team to strike a solid balance. That’s the only way to keep yourself from falling into the content hypocrisy trap.