The Republican front-runner is a guy who knows how to connect with people. So why doesn’t he?
If one word sums up the results of the Republican primaries, it’s got to be “Huh?”
Or taken out of shorthand: “Why is it that Mitt Romney — a candidate with mountains of credentials, a boatload of cash, and six years of planning — loses where he should win and only squeaks by where he should clobber, all while Rick Santorum, a long shot if there ever was one, goes around capturing hearts and votes?
Not that there aren’t plenty of answers to this question. Quite the opposite. Everyone in the pundit-sphere, it appears, agrees in one form or another that Romney’s problem is about connecting with people. He just doesn’t seem, as the nattering goes, very authentic. True, authenticity alone doesn’t make you a leader, but you sure can’t be a leader for very long without it. The reason’s simple. Authenticity makes people like you, trust you — and follow you.
Surely Mitt Romney, who’s been running organizations for decades, knows that in his bones. And in fact, people who know him well often speak of how Romney has always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. Smart, candid, self-deprecating, and, well, just sort of hilariously square.
But where is that guy now? Probably running scared. Scared of turning off any given constituency that might put him over the finish line. What an irony — and what a mistake. When it comes to leadership, guarded behavior may minimize the ire of your enemies, but it doesn’t energize anyone either.
That’s why, like every leader, Romney needs to let go of the fear of offending people and embrace his authentic side. Mitt needs to let Mitt be Mitt. And so, in a nod to the social media phenomenon, albeit with a slightly different name, we offer a short list of “Stuff Authentic People Say.”
First, to quote the great philosopher Popeye, you often hear authentic people give you some version of “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” You know what we mean. Authentic people are deeply comfortable with themselves; they acknowledge without phoniness where they’ve come from and who they’ve become, both the good and the not so good, through life’s accidents and their own hard work and ambition. Consider, for example, none less than Oprah, who rose to prominence not by hiding her painful past but by sharing it. And then, once famous, continuing to lay her humanity bare on a daily basis.
Second, authentic people say “I love” a lot, as in “I love March Madness!” You name it, they’re emoting about it. By the same token, authentic people also tend to throw around “I hate” quite a bit, as in “I hate people who don’t talk at meetings.” Who knows why they’re so passionate? Maybe being candid gives you self-confidence — you’re not hiding anything — and that self-confidence allows you to be exuberant about your beliefs, values, and opinions. But that’s just a theory. All we know is what we’ve observed forever. When it comes to love and hate, authentic people go big.
Third, authentic people aren’t afraid to say, “I’ve screwed up, and I’ve been down, and it was awful.” Authentic people actually seem to relish describing mistakes in gritty detail. Talking about the AOL-Time Warner AOL TWX deal, Ted Turner once said, “It had to be one of the biggest business mistakes ever made. We went into it half-cocked and unprepared. And a lot of people were wiped out because of it, including me.”
It’s important to note that in the next breath, Turner talked about how he regained his stature and fortune. The grind and the sweat of coming back — they’re also part of the authentic person’s narrative. Without doubt, Romney is not the first leader to have sublimated his true self. But in this life, it’s never too late to reclaim your authenticity.
This story is from the April 9, 2012 issue of Fortune.