When Inc.com Founders Forum asked designer Mark Ecko what the most important trait for entrepreneurs is, he didn't hesitate. His answer: authenticity.

He's not alone in insisting on the fundamental power of knowing--and being--yourself. While some skeptics point out that bluster and crafted self-presentation can pay off, most super successful people agree that while you can adapt stylistically to different audiences, you'll get much further in life if you're consistently true to your values.

"If you are 100 percent genuinely authentic and you truly know who you are, the context of where you are and whom you are talking to should not change the core of who you are and what you stand for," veteran journalist and INSEAD communications professor Steve Knight argued recently. "You will certainly adopt different tactics in your style of communication, i.e., formal or informal, and what you might choose to wear, but it should not change the essence of who you are."

The costs of wearing a mask

This sort of authentic consistency is valuable for a couple of reasons. First, covering up your true self takes effort and can be alienating. One survey found that half of those polled said that feeling like they needed to fake it at work affected their sense of the opportunities available to them at the organization, as well as their level of commitment to being there. Covering her true self "takes energy that I would rather give to my job," explained one respondent.

If pretending to be something you're not can be exhausting, it can also cost you when it comes to trust. "The negative impact of 'donning a mask' is that others can sense that something is not quite right. They get a gut feeling of uncertainty as to whether the person in front of them is being genuine and authentic. When people feel uncertain about you, they will most likely start to distrust you," explains Knight.

"Whether you are in conversation with presidents or shopkeepers, Oscar-winning actors or train conductors, millionaires or people who are struggling to make a living, the chairman, or those who keep the factory floor running, the same you should show up in all situations. Everyone is worth it," he concludes. "A true leader recognizes everyone" and is his or her true self with everyone.

How to achieve all-the-time authenticity

This is often easier said than done. Self-consciousness can cause us to put on a mask or attempt to please those whom we perceive as having greater status or power than we do, while simple laziness makes it easy to overlook the average Joes or Janes on the street and offer them less than the best version of yourself. So how can you get better at being true to yourself no matter whom you're speaking to? Knight offers a five-step program:

  1. Pay attention to people... The first step is simple but profound. "Notice people, i.e., in the street, on the train, in a supermarket, in your office complex," instructs Knight.
  2. ... and be nice. So is the second step. Remember to live up to your ideals and be as nice as you aspire to be. "Make eye contact; give a kind and thoughtful smile; say hello where appropriate; in shops and gas/petrol stations ask staff at the checkout how they are," writes Knight.
  3. Take a genuine interest in your colleagues. "Ask questions about them and listen attentively to their answers without interrupting to add your take on what they are saying or 'Oh, that happened to me once, blah, blah, blah,'" says Knight. "When we do that, we hijack their space and we have not honored them. Most often we do this out of nerves or wanting to fit in, or we are simply unaware that we are doing it, but the other person will feel, depending on his or her character, either disrespected, irritated, angry, insignificant, or not valued."
  4. Notice how you feel around the powerful. "With people who have a higher status than you at work or in life, start to notice if you have an 'I am less than them' feeling. This is when you might 'don your less-than mask' without realizing it," warns Knight. "The person you are talking to will no doubt sense it. They will help you if they are a genuine leader; if they are not, they could take advantage of you, or you could end up getting bypassed for that promotion you want. Start to feel comfortable in your own skin."
  5. Keep a journal. Include in it "dates and times of your situations, observations, behaviors (yours and others), feelings, emotions, actions (yours and others). Identify traits, habits and patterns" where you struggle to maintain authenticity. By identifying patterns, you can begin to shift them.