It begins and ends with showing up as your real, unapologetic, authentic self. We opened this topic last week, and we continue this week by exploring the relationship between authenticity, communication, presence, and trust.

To get us started, some bold words from Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei:

Pay less attention
to what you think people want to hear from you,
and far more attention
to what your authentic, awesome self needs to say.

Calling herself a “culture builder,” Frances Frei’s 2018 mainstage TED talk is a powerful and practical 15-minute crash course on building and maintaining trust. (Watch the video below.)

If we can learn to trust one another more,
we can have unprecedented human progress.

At the core of her message is the power of authenticity. Early on, she invites us into her fundamental worldview:

I believe there is a better version of us
around every corner.
And I have seen first-hand
how organizations and
communities and individuals
can change at breathtaking speed.

Frances Frei names this worldview “redemption.” Indeed, she looks for the redeeming qualities in everything and everyone, and lifts them up – unapologetically. Her words are simple, direct, and clear. In 15 minutes, she shares the essence of what we need to know in order to bring trust back into our relationships, our families, our companies, and even our countries.

In pure professor fashion, Dr. Frei draws a triangle on the blackboard to create a diagram of the three component parts of trust:

  • Authenticity
  • Logic
  • Empathy

She says that when all three components are strong, then there is trust. However, if any one of those components is threatened, then, in her words, “trust wobbles.”


She begins with the last component, Empathy. In her view, it is the most common wobble. She explains that empathy wobbles when people sense that we are distracted by something else, and therefore, they feel like we aren’t really interested in them. Our focus is somewhere else. And that makes the person in front of us feel as if they don’t really matter.

Frances Frei offers a simple yet powerful prescription for restoring empathy:

Identify where, when, and to whom or what
you are likely to offer your distraction.
This will show you where, when, and to whom
you are likely to withhold your empathy.

When we become distracted, we split our focus or attention between two or more things. In that moment, it appears to the person in front of us that the object of our distraction (the too-present mobile phone, another conversation, or averting your gaze to look at something else) has become more important than they are.  

Empathy and distraction are like oil and water – they just don’t mix. We can only build trust when we are fully present and give 100% of our attention to the people and/or the situation in front of us right in that moment.


Her second component of trust is Logic. This component brings two inquiries:

  • What is the quality of your logic? Is it strong and credible? Does it have substance?
  • How clearly and succinctly do you communicate your logic?

Dr. Frei confirmed my own experience in coaching leaders – that their logic is very often sound, yet they are not always very good at communicating their message clearly. Being able to say what they want to say simply, clearly, and effectively in just one or two sentences is critical. Too often, they begin with a story or an explanation, thinking they are creating context. Yet by the time they get to the important point, people have stopped listening.

Therefore, start with your point. Speak out the essence of what you have to say in your first sentence. Then explain your logic if necessary.

Which takes us back to…


Empathy and Logic can be learned. However, Authenticity is not a skill to be learned. It’s a process of getting comfortable enough in your own skin that you can show up as your real, unapologetic, authentic self all the time.

Dr. Frei reminds us that this is easy to do when we are around people who are like us. We feel safe.

However, as soon as we are with people who are not like us, this can be really hard. Our presence – who we are, how we think, what is important to us, and how we view the world – can make people who view the world differently than we do uncomfortable. As a result, we might feel judged, not welcome, or not worthy. And those feelings can make us uncomfortable.

As a result, we hold back who we are. When we hold back who we are, others sense that we are not being authentic. Trust quickly evaporates on both sides.

When I consider many of the most extraordinary people I know, I recognize that part of what makes them powerful and amazing is also often what makes them different from others. Therefore, they are not always automatically accepted or welcomed. What makes them extraordinary is both who they are in their differentness, and their willingness to stand tall and proud – to be open about who they are, what they believe, and what is important to them; and to live and lead from that place without apology.

And so, Frances Frei’s advice:

Pay less attention
to what you think people want to hear from you,
and far more attention
to what your authentic, awesome self needs to say.

Her invitation to leaders:

It is your obligation to set the conditions
that not only make it safe
for people to be authentic,
but makes it welcome.
Makes it celebrated.
Cherishes it for exactly what it is.

It’s one thing to talk about showing up real, unapologetic, and authentic. It’s quite another to live it. Frances Frei concludes her talk with these words:

It is still much easier to coach people to fit in. It is still much easier to reward people when they say something that you were going to say, as opposed to rewarding people when they say something entirely different than what you were going to say.

 But when we figure out this – when we figure out how to celebrate difference, and how to let people bring the best version of themselves forward – that’s the world I want my sons to grow up in.

Enjoy the talk.


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