How to lead with fearless authenticity at work

Jun 24, 2020

5 mins

How to lead with fearless authenticity at work
Rose Costello


Danessa Knaupp, the author of Naked at Work—a Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity, is described on the book jacket as an executive coach, leadership expert, and keynote speaker. So it’s a surprise to find inside that she has started three businesses, but had to close down two of them and nearly declared bankruptcy. She has no formal business training, never mind an MBA. After 20 years as a Fortune 100 executive and entrepreneur, she is now a successful coach based in Virginia in the US. So what’s her secret?

“I’m a sought-after coach because I know what it’s like to fail as well as to succeed. My clients trust that I deeply understand them . . . the balance of candor, compassion, and courage born of my own failure is my superpower.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

America is often viewed as the home of positive thinking, but Knaupp found that all the leaders she coached struggled with feelings of being ill-equipped for their job, whether it was a vague sense of disconnection or full-on imposter syndrome. Memories of mistakes held them back from achieving their potential as leaders. It also costs some businesses dearly. Knaupp writes of one organization in which the time and effort staff spent managing their boss was costing about half a million dollars a year. In Naked at Work, Knaupp follows the process she uses with top executives at leading organizations.

“My work with hundreds of leaders has proven, repeatedly, that we have the power to transform ourselves and our teams. It doesn’t take years of therapy or expensive degree programs. It takes awareness, intention, effort, and a path.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

There is no perfect leader

Before you start to examine your experience, Knaupp is keen to emphasize that there is no such thing as a perfect leader or a perfect path to the top. Her coaching business is thriving now, but after her food start-up failed in 2007, she took it hard. It took her a long time to stop blaming herself.

“I wish I could say that I immediately became a stronger leader. But that’s not what happened. I wasn’t ready. I was stuck on failure. Losing my business made me overly cautious.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

Learning to lead with fearless authenticity

Knaupp got her old job back but saw no value in her business failure until a colleague pointed out that it made her more relatable. Her experience could help others to avoid making the same mistakes. Now she uses what she learned to coach others to lead with fearless authenticity. Here are the six steps Knaupp takes her clients through. Each chapter ends with key takeaways and questions that require you to reflect deeply on your personal circumstances.

1. Stop wasting your time on shame.

First, you need to face up to what might be causing you to hold yourself back. Do you think your peers are more qualified, have better experience, or have never made the type of mistakes that you have? That may be true, but those beliefs are not serving you.

“Shame is paralyzing, backward-looking, and unproductive.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

2. Take a good, hard look at where you are. Then embrace it.

Before drawing a roadmap to success, you need to work out exactly where you are. Knaupp advises undertaking a personal analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This is not easy for those with low self-awareness, so Knaupp offers a Minute Manifesto. This is a series of five questions designed to elicit deep-seated answers and deliver insight as to who you are at heart and what you really want. It involves free writing for five minutes on the following before analyzing the answers later:

  • Who are you?
  • What have you done?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do you stand for?
  • How are you uniquely qualified to contribute?

Knaupp uses two other exercises to help clients reach an accurate assessment of their talents and achievements. The High-Low Career Map is simply a line charting your perceived successes and failures. Examine it for ideas on how to recreate times when you’ve felt your best and explore new possibilities for action.

For the Proud Personal History, you need to write a letter to someone you can openly brag to about yourself. It could be your mum, uncle, or even your dog. Tell them everything you are proud of, even if it’s not work-related. Don’t edit, just look for similarities.

3. Reframe or trash the stories you’re telling yourself that don’t serve you.

You can learn to reframe negative stories so that they serve you, rather than hinder you. Knaupp used to believe she was awful at sports, based on a bad experience she had when she was six years old. She realized, however, that the idea had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She saw herself as unathletic, so she didn’t even try. Reframing the story allowed her to train for and run a half-marathon. Most of us carry secret stories about ourselves and others, she writes. We repeat them to ourselves so often that we begin to see them as objective truths. But they aren’t.

“We often don’t have a clear idea of the stories we tell ourselves or the power they hold until we look at them closely, understand the events we have selected, and consider how those selected events shaped our perspective and beliefs.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

4. Mine your failures for golden gifts.

Every experience, no matter how embarrassing, can yield lessons. Instagram came about because the developers of Burbn, which was intended to help people plan get-togethers, noticed that users spent more time sharing photos. If its founders had been too embarrassed by Burbn’s failure to talk about it, there might be no Instagram. Instead, they looked at what worked and what didn’t work in that idea, then built on it.

“When we divorce failure from shame and reframe it, we can capture the upside. Of course, we don’t always fail, pivot and succeed. Sometimes, we fail, fail again, and keep failing.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

5. Get naked at work (the right way).

When you drop the mask and leave the armor at home, you will be more focused on the job at hand, and your team will find it easier to trust you, according to Knaupp. Start and end the day with some human interaction, but don’t go too far. There is no need to overshare your personal news or views.

You can shift into authentic leadership by following these steps:

  • Be fully human at work.
  • Consistently treat others with candor and compassion.
  • Adopt and keep a beginner’s mind. Be curious.

“Getting naked means dropping anything and everything you are doing for the sake of managing impressions, shame, pretense and anything else not related to leading people powerfully forward. . . trusting you are good enough to lead.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

6. Get it wrong. Recognize it’s hard and do it again anyway.

Leading with courage and heart feels hard because it is, writes Knaupp. You may feel you are struggling, but that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. Take baby steps and build from there.

“It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and lonely, and to make mistakes. Find your productive discomfort zone and build from there, even if it feels small.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

The idea of being fearlessly authentic at work may sound challenging and make you feel exposed, but the potential rewards are far-reaching. There is nothing impossible in this book, though it does demand serious honesty with yourself if you want to benefit. It won’t take too long to get through either as there is a lot of repetition. This may not be the guide to leadership that we were expecting to read, but it may be the one we need.

“When you can quiet the noise in your head to allow your truest, best self to come forward, you will have everything you need to powerfully lead your organization into the future.” - Danessa Knaupp, Naked at Work

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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