Why authentic leadership pays dividends


In a special piece courtesy of HQ Asia, Dr Liz Mellon says why the human touch is key to great leadership

What does ‘authentic’ mean? Most definitions include ideas such as not a copy, real, actual, genuine. Yet we mostly tend to behave differently at work than at home; more professionally presented, more thoughtful about what we say and when and how we say it. So how can a leader be more authentic at work – revealing enough, but not too much? It’s a fine balance.

Keep the mask too thick and people complain that they ‘don’t know’ or ‘can’t reach’ us. In the light of this, some leaders have taken the plea for authentic leadership to mean that they have licence to behave just as they would among loved ones at home; occasionally thoughtless, or even hurtful or childish. Trust me, it doesn’t work. For example, I have worked with a deeply introverted and highly intellectual leader who kept what I called his ‘screen saver’ face on the whole time. We worked hard to allow a permissible amount of emotion to escape, so that his followers could read his reactions to their ideas and suggestions. Without such clues, they just kept proposing more and more ideas, which were getting everyone confused. On the other hand, I have also seen a chief executive and chief financial officer collude in constant silly jokes and pranks. This not only undermined respect for them, it meant that work was disrupted and undermined. Today, this global company is in a lot of trouble.

Authenticity is deeply thoughtful, proactive and driven by the desire to serve followers and the organization in the best way possible. Being authentic as a leader is nowhere near as simple as being yourself. As followers, we may want to feel we know and can touch our leaders – but this doesn’t give them the freedom to act as though we are part of their loving family. Followers need to respect–not love–their leaders. So authentic leadership is about entering a situation and assessing what is needed from you as the leader – and then providing it.

As one former chief executive, Irene Dorner of HSBC, described it to me, it’s like being a light. You arrive at work and you switch yourself on – and you work hard to keep the light shining all day. Only once home can you switch off and relax. Plainly put, authentic leadership is hard work, with a thousand decisions to be taken every day. Is this the point to speak up, or to be silent and let a Gen Y employee have the floor? Is a judgment needed now, or can it be delayed? Is this the moment to confront or conciliate? What will work best?

The reason that authentic leaders are so powerful is that they combine their intellect and their empathy to fill in the gaps. That doesn’t mean that they lack initiative or just follow the moment!  It means that they understand that every organization is a social network that has to be navigated in order to make change happen. And a leader’s job is to make change happen – and it won’t happen by ordering it. I carried out a 360 feedback process by interview for one chief executive who had just fought off a hostile takeover. I interviewed senior executives inside the company, a range of external advisors closely linked to the City of London and employees, including the doorman to the building. All of these stakeholders had to be managed and balanced during the delicate negotiations, because any one of them could have tripped up the process. We tend to think of chief executives saying what they want and it magically happening. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A chief executive needs to win buy-in, just like anyone else – just at a super-sophisticated level!

What is the challenge to authentic leadership in Western, individually driven societies?  It’s easy for a leader to read followers’ willingness to challenge or question authority as a recipe for a relaxed, open conversation. But we all want to follow a leader who is better at the job than ourselves! We still want to be led, rather than treated as a friend where anything can be said.

In Asia, it’s almost the opposite, with age and rank getting a level of deference that might prevent the leader hearing necessary truths. In some cultures, such as Japan, the way round this is to allow almost anything to be said socially, outside work, so that the real situation facing the organization can be tackled. But with an increasing number of female workers, who won’t go to the pubs and clubs as the men might, the leader will increasingly need to make safe space for unwholesome truths to be shared at work instead.

Authentic leaders engage discretionary effort from followers, so it’s well worth the effort.


Dr Liz Mellon is executive director at Duke Corporate Education and chair of the Dialogue editorial board.