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Leadership development: Why only authentic leaders need apply

The saying “You’ve got to fake it till you make it” is, sadly, advice that still seems to be regularly bandied around in career circles. However, it now appears horribly out of touch with what’s really valued in the workplace, particularly for current or aspiring leaders. It’s now all about being authentic and if this is isn’t already central in your leadership development strategy, well it should be.

Authenticity as a concept has, according to the Harvard Business Review, become the ‘gold standard’ for leadership in recent years. It revolves around the basic notion of being yourself in the workplace, because people respond better to people that are real.

So far so obvious you may think. However, you may be surprised at how many business leaders feel like they have to ‘play the role’, to act, behave and speak in a certain way, rather than being genuine, especially when it comes to making difficult decisions.

What exactly is authentic leadership?

In the simplest terms, authentic leadership is described as people who are true to themselves, genuine, ethical and transparent. These individuals enact their true selves in their role as a leader.

The outcome of this approach to leadership is that it builds trust. Authentic leaders are trusted because they freely share information, encourage open communication and stick to their ideals. Naturally, as a result, employees, peers, customers and other stakeholders will have greater faith in them.

Why is authentic leadership so important?

In a nutshell, because it can be very good for business. The last decade has seen a spike in authentic leadership research. This has shown clearly its positive impact on productivity in the workplace.

The influence of good leadership and authenticity in leaders are far reaching and can help organisations to realise benefits such as:

  • Greater workforce engagement and job satisfaction
  • Lower levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism
  • Decreased risk of exposure to bullying behaviour
  • Improved leader-member exchange, which consequently improved job performance.

Far-reaching influence

Indeed the influence of high-profile leaders such as CEOs and company figureheads can extend even further. What they say and how they behave can also have an impact upon existing or potential customers.

As consumers, many of us will be very aware of business leaders, particularly for big and admired brands such as Apple, Facebook, Virgin or Microsoft. Their figurehead CEOs are household names and we pick up on their sound bites, statements and values. And, whether consciously or not, such things are likely to influence the decisions we make as consumers.

Authentic leadership in practice

So, how easily can this leadership theory actually be applied in practice? A particular dilemma is how to find practical applications that support both personal development and organisational gains. Also, can today’s leaders really be ‘authentic’ and, at the same time, drive revenue and profitability while operating in an increasingly volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business world?

There’s no doubt that it’s a tall order, but it can be done. Look to Ratan Tata, the former CEO of Tata Group, for inspiration.

Case study: Leading by example at Tata Group

Under Ratan Tata’s stewardship, Tata Group grew twelve-fold and became a multinational conglomerate with a presence in 100 countries. Along the way they acquired Tetley Tea, Corus Steel and Jaguar Land Rover. ‘Made in India’ became a globally recognised tag, and 66% of the company is now held by a charitable trust that supports a wide range of educational and cultural institutions across India.

So, how did he do it?

Ratan Tata is, by all accounts, a man of principle and was a leader intent on running his company in what he called the ‘right’ way. His philosophy included good governance (advocating independence and empowering young leaders), social responsibility (enhancing quality of life for all) and fair business practices (standing by his principles).

By embedding these values and living and breathing this philosophy, he gave Tata Group a framework and clear direction that enabled them to grow and prosper by building relationships and engaging their stakeholders.

Ultimately, one could argue that Ratan Tata’s success owed much to him being an authentic leader, because he was his true self at work and because he refused to compromise his values and principles in the way he led the business.

Can authentic leadership be taught?

Of course it can. We can all learn to be more authentic in the way we lead, manage or operate at work. This starts with knowing yourself and what you believe in.

You must be prepared to be yourself, regardless of the situation. Keep in mind your core values and use these as a compass to guide you and consider how the actions and decisions you make as a leader every day align with your beliefs and philosophy.

You’ll almost certainly need to increase your self-awareness, gain a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and of how you’re perceived by others. There are various different psychometric tools that can help you to gain such insights.

Then, armed with this information, you should think about what you need to address about your leadership style and behaviour. A leadership coach could help to this end and can have a really transformative impact. They can offer invaluable guidance and push and challenge you to be the best, and most authentic, leader that you can be.

Seeking the services of a leadership (or life) coach sometimes has a negative stigma, but why is this? After all, a leading athlete would hardly be expected to attend an Olympic games without a coach so why is it any different for business leaders?

Leadership isn’t easy, so seeking out the right support is essential to succeeding. Authentic leadership certainly isn’t an easy option either but it’s clear that learning to be true to yourself in the way you lead can be a highly effective and successful approach.

Leroy, Anseel, Gardner, & Sels, 2015
Giallonardo et al., 2010
Laschinger, 2013
Nielsen, 2013
Wang et al., 2014

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