Authentic Leadership: The Unconscious Conversation

Trust in business is at an all-time low. According to a recent study, only 18% of people polled trust business leaders to tell the truth; fewer than half trust businesses to do the right thing. Even worse, employee engagement has also reached new depths, with only one in ten workers claiming they are actually committed to their job. These numbers indicate that leadership is lacking in every industry.

Leadership consultant and coach, Terry Pearce puts it best, “Leadership is not just a matter of knowing what to do – it’s a matter of knowing and communicating why we are doing it. What is absent in 21st century communication is not information or knowledge. What’s missing is inspiration. We long for leadership because we are rarely inspired.”

Like it or not, the CEO must answer for low trust and low morale. Today, a CEO must be the Chief Emotional Officer, the public face of the company responsible for corporate reputation and culture. Unfortunately, many leaders lack the ability to inspire and motivate. They don’t know how to communicate authentically.

Authenticity is the gold standard of leadership. It is aspirational as well as motivational. It creates commitment rather than compliance. Authenticity requires the emotional intelligence to connect what you say to how you feel.  When a leader speaks with genuine passion and conviction those emotions are evident in the speaker’s body and voice. The audience senses that authenticity.

The first step to understanding authenticity is to understand how the human brain absorbs communication.  Whenever we engage in communication there are actually two conversations going on … one conscious, the other unconscious.

Both conversations are governed by the “emotional” part of our brains – called the Limbic System.  This system receives, interprets and routes data from the conscious and unconscious mind, processing sensations at 10 million bits per second. That’s 80,000 times faster than the conscious, thinking part of the brain.  The emotional brain makes unconscious judgments about people and situations in nanoseconds.  We sense these judgments long before we are cognitively aware of them. We have a “feeling.” That feeling is what neuroscientists call “limbic resonance.”

Limbic resonance, the connection that results from the non-verbal conversation, makes or breaks every communicator.  Body language and vocal tone are the true sources of authenticity, the keys to leadership communication. We humans subconsciously sense the presence of emotional content in spoken words. When it’s there, we feel connected to the speaker. When it’s not, we are left with a feeling that what we have heard are “empty words.”

Authentic leadership communication emanates from deep within. Real leaders communicate in ways that inspire action from others. They understand who they are and what they want. They are driven by principle not politics. They are grounded by genuine personal values. Those personal values form the foundation of every decision they make and are evident in everything they do and say. Leadership flows from the application of those values.

Achieving authenticity is a journey of self-discovery. Values form the basis for all leadership communication. Once those values are discovered, a leader can begin to communicate through them, not merely about them. Speaking through values inspires leaders and gives them the ability to inspire others.

Audiences know authenticity when they see and hear it. These three principles can help putting you on the road to authenticity:

  1. The Messenger Is The Message

    Take complete ownership of what you are going to say. You can’t win with someone else’s words or ideas any more than you can see with someone else’s eyes. Effective communication is 10% what you say and 90% how you feel about what you say … it’s emotional, so make it personal.Here’s a great example of a speaker who makes a story personally powerful. Listen to the way Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer, pleads the case for more research into treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.Fear is a powerful emotion. Dr. Lewis-Hall uses it to make a powerful connection with her audience. “I spent my entire youth wanting to be just like my Grandmother. Today, my biggest fear is that I will be.” She underscores her point with a declarative statement hammering home the urgency she feels for the situation with the words, “I feel the heat.”

  2. Images Are More Powerful Than Words

    Authenticity is all about making the audience feel something. Numbers and statistics are valuable only when the audience is forced to see and feel their impact. Watch this clip in which Dr. Lewis-Hall draws a powerful picture of the enormous threat dementia makes on society at large.Our emotional brain prefers visual images and experiences. Dr. Lewis-Hall draws the image and makes the entire audience feel the enormity of the statistic, first with a show of hands then, with the rhetorical question, “Do you feel the heat?”

  3. There Is Nothing Spontaneous About Authenticity

    A performance is the wrong time for an original thought. It’s obvious that Dr. Lewis-Hall was well rehearsed. Leaders who try to “wing it,” run the risk of failing to connect. Just as great writers write and rewrite, great speakers rehearse and refine, then rehearse some more. Authenticity requires complete mastery and comfort with your content. Rehearsing with a coach is best. Rehearsing with a colleague is fine. Make a video recording of rehearsal then assess your performance. Rehearsing on your own in front of a mirror can also be effective. Every rehearsal has value. How much rehearsal do you need? The goal is to assimilate your content so that you don’t have to think about what to say … you know what to say. That level of familiarity allows you to put all of your energy, your passion and conviction, into your performance. A good rule of thumb is 10 to 1 … ten rehearsals to one performance.


Authentic leadership communication is much more than saying what we think or how we feel. Genuine leadership requires a commitment to engage and connect with others, to inspire and to motivate.

The New York Times says that leaders in the digital age need to be, “compelling, unforgettable, funny, and smart.” I’m not sure every leader needs to be a great showman. I do know that in a world filled with TED Talks and YOU TUBE, authenticity is at a premium.



Lee Zeidman is a strategic and crisis communications expert with a specialty in coaching C-level executives. Lee began his career in broadcast journalism where he was an award-winning prime time producer for CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours” and “Street Stories”. For the last twenty years, Lee has taught major figures in global business to communicate authentically, and effectively manage and maximize their messages under the most adversarial situations. Connect with Lee on LinkedIn.