Earlier this week I had the pleasure of talking to the brilliant Jon Harding as we recorded an episode of my forthcoming podcast, ChangeStoriesTM.  In our conversation, we returned a number of times to the need for honest and open conversations in organisations in order to build a shared identity during periods of change.  We also discussed how honesty, openness, authenticity and vulnerability are often sadly lacking in organisations, particularly at the leadership level.

In recent times, there has been an increasing focus on the level of authenticity (or not) that leaders have demonstrated during Covid.  As consumers, we are becoming more critical of organisations and leaders that are perceived as inauthentic and unethical in their handling of the pandemic for their workers and customers.  And it is likely that this trend will continue.

Existing research has already highlighted that authentic leaders are more able to take people with them when they want to introduce change and win over the hearts and minds of others within the organisation 

The research suggests that this is because authentic leadership behaviours positively influence employee attitudes and beliefs about change and make it more likely that employees will participate in change efforts and create a coalition around the change.

Interestingly the research also emphasises the importance of authenticity during change, saying that “the authenticity and attitude of [a] leader [is] the crucial factor in winning the hearts and minds of employees in order to create successful change in an organisation, rather than the use of an existing change management model” (Coetsee, 2013

But, what exactly is authentic leadership?

The notion of authentic leadership has been part of the business landscape for some time. The term authentic leadership is often used to suggest a leader who:

  • shows that they are trustworthy by being honest and open about admitting and taking responsibility for mistakes
  • has high levels of self awareness and is happy to share their learning journey with others
  • shows courage to challenge the status quo
  • truly empowers others
  • shares something of their true selves at work.

This approach has been criticised by some as being too simplistic.  As Herminia Ibarra writes in the Harvard Business Review, having a limited understanding of authentic leadership and trying to apply it in every situation, can backfire.  For example, as highlighted in the article, there are risks associated with being totally transparent in all situations.  According to Ibarra, there is a trade off between behaving in a way that is expected in a specific situation and behaving in a way that feels authentic.  For many leaders, being themselves at work is something that is challenging and a bit scary.  However, there is a need for authentic leaders who can share something of their real self in the workplace.

Does this mean that I have to bare my soul at work?  

I’ve written previously about the role of the leader in uncertain times  and being transparent and honest is one of the key roles of the leader during uncertainty

But does this mean being honest about everything all of the time?  

The answer to that is no.  Authentic leadership does not mean simply telling everyone who will listen your inner most secrets.  In fact, authentic leadership is a mindful activity of revealing your self complete with your flaws, but within boundaries.

In her article, Brené Brown argues that authenticity “requires almost constant vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.  It also means staying mindful about our intentions.  Real authenticity actually requires major self monitoring…” (Brown, 2016).

So, self awareness is key

Being aware of our desire and intentions about authenticity as well as how we might impact on others is important here.  Research carried out by Newcastle University Business School in 2013 suggests that leaders who are more aware of their own ways of thinking about change and how this might influence others, are more likely to be able to lead successful change.  Other research also suggests that understanding the beliefs about change that exist in the organisation is also essential to create a change approach that is tailored to the environment within the organisation.  Crucially, the authors identified that many leaders lack the ability to see how people experience them as a leader, which ultimately means that any change is bound to fail. 

This process of development as an authentic leader can take a life time and is a continual process of learning and growth.  Expanding on his original work in Authentic Leadership, Bill George has now created an approach to enable leaders to understand their individual journey to becoming an authentic leader.

He recommends that leaders undertake the following activities to gain self awareness:

  • Understand your own life story and how your experiences influence who you are
  • Undertake regular reflective practice
  • Seek honest feedback from as wide a circle of people as possible and listen to what they say
  • Understand your purpose in being a leader
  • Practice tailoring your style to different audiences and groups without compromising your core character or ‘your best self’

It can also be useful to think about these things from an organisation and team perspective. What is the history of the organisation and how does it impact on the organisation now? What does this mean for how change can be enacted for the organisation? What is the purpose for the team and does everyone understand this purpose? How do we want our team to be experienced by others in the organisation (and outside)?

What’s next for authentic leadership?

The post Covid world of work represents both an opportunity and a threat to authentic leadership.  The lack of face to face contact at work can make it difficult for leaders to build strong relationships with their teams.  Emotional intelligence on the part of a leader becomes even more important as we attempt to gauge how our teams are feeling through a computer screen

However, the chance to rethink the way we work is a huge opportunity to consider what authentic leadership means now.  There are great opportunities too to reconnect with teams and have some important and honest conversations about what makes them tick.  What are the learnings that you can take from lockdown?  How do the team want to work in the future.  This tool from Work Horizons has some questions to get the conversations started.  

Leaders must reflect upon how they want to lead their teams post Covid and take some time, before rushing back to ‘normal’, to think about what sort of leader they want to be in the future.  Otherwise, any learning that has been gained during lockdown will be lost.

Let me know what you have learnt during lockdown and how you are going to use this in the future.