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Learn from others, but be true to your core values

Most of the business owners I work with are continually interested in learning how to improve their personal leadership and the operation of their businesses.

Whether it’s through conversations with other business leaders or reading books, periodicals and web-based information sources, they learn from others’ successes and apply these lessons to their own enterprises.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, a lot can be gained from studying others’ success, whether it’s done formally through benchmarking and rigorous study of industry best practices, or through the informal “I think I’ll try that” approach.

The problem I see is business leaders trying to emulate other leaders’ styles when that persona conflicts with their personality, or more importantly, with their core values. It’s like wearing a suit tailored for someone else — people can “read” the awkward fit instantly.

Likewise, trying to adopt the strategy of another company as your own can be a bad fit with damaging consequences.

The popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and the more than 40 other books on Apple and Jobs that have been published since Jobs’ death in October 2011 attest to our desire to understand and emulate success. And Apple clearly deserves its reputation as one of the most successful and admired companies in the history of the world. But think how hard it is to replicate Apple’s success.

There are three ways a business can grow: expand sales of current products and services; merge with and acquire other businesses; or gain market share by introducing new products and services.

Apple is unusually adept at this third approach, but most companies, particularly small businesses, aren’t. They grow by expanding sales of existing products and services. Even among other world-class global enterprises, very few businesses create new markets through disruptive innovation as Apple does.

This brings me to the point of this blog. Authenticity is powerful. As a leader and as a company, people can read when you are true to yourself.

We all know what it’s like to have a bad customer experience with a company while the plaque of their “core values” including some version of outstanding customer service is staring at us. Clarity about who you are and what you stand for can itself be a differentiator in an economy crowded with competition.

Something else I’ve noticed about authentic leadership is that it not only provides focus and energy for the business, but also makes it fun. Business owners who manage with conviction based on clear values consistent with their personal leadership strengths have a lot more fun than those who are trying to be someone they’re not.

So, by all means, study and learn from others. Just be true to your own core values as a leader and build on your unique sources of success