Critical Leadership Skills Series: Authenticity 

November, 2023

Join Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel to explore this set of four critical leadership skills that unlock unlimited potential in people and organizations. 

In a world of nonstop change and perpetual polycrises, a state change in leadership is needed now more than ever — yet organizations today reveal a stunning lack of leadership, with just 11% of surveyed organizations reporting “robust leadership.” This vacuum offers a massive opportunity to those willing to look inward and re-examine their ingrained thought and behavior patterns. 

For innovative solutions to build the world of the future, leaders must do the work — first for themselves and then for their organizations — to develop new mindsets. Most leadership training fails because it considers only the day-to-day challenges organizations and individuals face without ever addressing the underlying mechanisms that impede true change. 

Through decades of work with organizations of every type and size, Unstoppable has identified four key leadership skills that foster cultures of unlimited potential: authenticity, responsibility, courage, and adaptability.

In our four-part series on Empowerment, Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel deep-dive into each of these skills. In this article, they focus on developing habits and cultures of authenticity. Read on to explore Kevin and Vikram’s insights on authenticity, and how it can transform organizations and unlock quantum leaps of success and fulfillment. 

Unstoppable Conversations: Why is authenticity an essential skill for any organization looking to effectively navigate complexity? 

Vikram Maraj: Authenticity is the first ingredient of credibility and resides at the heart of loyalty. Yet most people spend a lot of time pretending — pretending they have it handled, that they understand when they don’t, that they aren’t worried, that they care, that they’re listening. 

Kevin Gangel: Everyone has an innate bullshit detector. Not because of our keen perception, but because we all bullshit other people, so we know exactly how it feels and we can recognize it. As a leader, you have to stop pretending. How do you do that? You “fess up” to those around you about where and when you have pretended, ignored, fudged, lied, stayed silent, allowed someone to keep a bad assumption — bullshitted them in any way. 

VM: That changes the whole dynamic because when someone is authentic, when someone reveals themselves without trying to hide anything, it’s like a blinding light. It’s unexpected. It generates safety and gives permission to all in earshot to be themselves. It is immediately attractive and stands in sharp contrast to everything and everyone else.

“Authenticity is the first ingredient of credibility and resides at the heart of loyalty.”


-Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

UC: Describe the old school/top-down/conventional notion of authenticity — how is Unstoppable’s notion of authenticity different? 

KG: Back in the day, authenticity was code for honesty, and honesty meant telling you how I really feel. That means I’m giving myself permission to vent all my feelings, frustration, judgments, and “truths” at you, and you’re not allowed to do anything about it because I’m just being honest.

VM: At that level, honesty is damaging. It’s a glorified way to vomit your opinions on someone, giving you license to say what you please without thought to the consequences. This kind of “honesty” is an outwardly directed act. 

Authenticity, on the other hand, is an inwardly directed act where you reveal something about yourself that you don’t have to — something that exposes your humanity. It’s a kind of communication that is disarming, even humbling. It creates a deep sense of connection and trust. Authenticity takes way more courage than honesty because authenticity is being honest about yourself, not someone else.

“Everyone has an innate bullshit detector. Not because of our keen perception, but because we all bullshit other people, so we know exactly how it feels and we can recognize it.”


-Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

KG: Authenticity is sharing what’s going on for you at the level of your humanity, in a way that makes it crystal clear that you’re the only one accountable for you. It’s removing all blame, shame, guilt, credit, or fault, and sharing how it’s really going for you in that blame-free space. What are you afraid of, committed to, excited about, anxious about, doubtful about? What have you been wanting to say that you haven’t been willing or able to say? Whether it’s a collaboration with trusted partners or a high-stakes negotiation, the first one to be vulnerable almost always creates the most value for themselves.

UC: What are the stumbling blocks that can limit this kind of authenticity? How do you overcome them? 

KG: What limits authenticity is the unwillingness to take a risk. We are consistently predicting in our own minds how the conversation will go if and when we say something authentic. We’re writing and rewriting whole scripts in our own minds, judging and evaluating what to say, how to say it, who to say it to, when is the right time, and what is the right place. Eventually we’ve mapped out the entire conversation and, not liking how we predict it’s gonna go, we shut our mouths. We never say anything because “it won’t go well” or “they’re not ready” or “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s not worth it” or a dozen other things we’ve made up and interpreted before they’ve even happened. And everyone is doing this, so the loops are self-reinforcing.

VM: It’s the fear of looking bad or the fear of being judged. You overcome it by understanding that almost everyone around you knows you aren’t being straight with them. We all pretend we don’t notice everyone else pretending. It’s a game everyone knows the rules of — I won’t call out your pretending if you don’t call out mine. So you overcome this limitation by accepting that you aren’t fooling anyone. 

“What limits authenticity is the unwillingness to take a risk. We are consistently predicting in our own minds how the conversation will go if and when we say something authentic.”


-Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

UC: It’s been said that the best thing an enterprise can do is cultivate conditions for growth because the most successful business outcomes are unpredictable — how does authenticity help create an environment for growth?

VM: First, authenticity is rare and it’s attractive. Talented people want to work for authentic leaders. Second, when the majority of the people in your company practice authenticity, mistakes aren’t hidden and the truth is told. As a consequence, way more information is provided to leaders — information that employees in other companies hide from leadership and each other. This enormous data set makes for much stronger decisions. Stronger decisions enable a company to grow.

KG: Authenticity creates speed. Inauthenticity, pretending, hiding, working around, and keeping your mouth shut when you have something to say? Those are all barriers to workability, performance, speed, and growth. When you train yourself and the people around you to say what needs to be said, in the moment, free of blame and shame, absent guilt or fault, then no one wastes time trying to figure out what’s really going on. 

Just like high-performance sports teams “say it like it is” in the midst of the game action, high-performing organizational teams “say it like it is” with a common understanding that direct and open communication drives action and progress toward the shared goal. High-performing teams have a lot of “chatter” of feedback going back and forth. The engagement is palpable.

UC: Please share an example of how you’ve seen authenticity affect a person or company. 

KG: In one of our first strategic engagements 12 years ago with a high-performing and award-winning team, a CEO discovered the only thing she was ever trying to communicate to her team was: “Are you with me?” She realized that this was the unspoken question behind her every request, demand, update, plan, and target-setting with her senior executives. Discovering and sharing that fundamental part of her communication allowed her COO to discover his unspoken question: “Am I good?” With these discoveries, two skilled colleagues who already worked great together saw each other at a whole new level of humanity. It shifted their relationship forever because they could each recognize a fundamental and never-going-to-go-away need of the other person. They created a powerful and seamless succession plan that left them both fulfilled, and fueled the success of the organization for years to come.

“Within an hour, a contentious issue was resolved and the relationship between the two companies took a quantum leap.”


-Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

VM: I coached the owner of a steel company. She is an amazing leader working in a male-dominated industry. She was at an onsite meeting with a contractor about a joint project that was failing. Early in the meeting, the senior project manager for the other company turned his chair and started speaking to her male colleagues on the other side of the table. 

From years of being coached in our unique model, she noticed the resentment she was feeling and how much this reminded her of past situations when she had been ignored. She noticed how quickly her past experiences came flooding in, disabling her ability to think clearly and act decisively. She decided to “step outside” of that past scenario and speak up. She said, “I just noticed how small I was making myself in this conversation and how detached I was becoming. All because you turned your chair and now I’m looking at your back, Bob (then she chuckled). I apologize for not participating. Now here’s what I think…” Bob and the other men were woken up by her authenticity and leadership. Within an hour, a contentious issue was resolved and the relationship between the two companies took a quantum leap.

KG: When authenticity is present, people naturally and easily smile, laugh, cry tears of joy, experience being touched and moved, and feel affinity and closeness with each other. Why? Because we all crave authenticity. We know it when we see it, and we love it when we are able to connect authentically.


Vik Maraj is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as Head of Design and Delivery.

Kevin Gangel is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as CEO.

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