How Authentic Leaders Transform Themselves and Their Company Cultures


Authentic leadership. Is it a special trait or natural quality of a select few, or something to which we can all aspire? After working with CEOs to transform organisational cultures for over ten years, I’m more and more convinced that we all have the ability – and the responsibility – to become truly authentic leaders.

In fact, we downright owe it to ourselves to become leaders with real passion and belief in what we are doing and a clear set of values that we live consistently every day. Only then can we create workplace cultures where our employees flourish and our organisations both outperform and contribute to the common good.

To help me make the case for authentic leadership, I spoke to Richard Barrett of the Barrett Values Centre, author of several books on trust, values and leadership including The New Leadership Paradigm, and Geoff McDonald, director of leadership consultancy Bridge Partnership and former Global VP HR of Marketing, Communications, Sustainability & Water at Unilever.

The Authenticity Gap

“I’m really, really questioning how authentic people are as leaders in our corporations today,” says Geoff. “They are very authentic when they’re with their families, but something happens to people when they walk through the door at work.”

It’s something we’ve probably all felt at some stage of our career: donning a mental suit of armour before starting the working day. But what causes this “authenticity gap?”

Part of the problem lies with the downward pressures flowing from organisations and shareholders. Many leaders are trapped between following what they truly believe in and want to achieve, and what organisational pressures force on them.

“One of the real evils in the corporate world today is this absolute focus on driving efficiency,” says Geoff. “With that comes short-termism and an inability to have any slack in the system – leaders find it near impossible to go to the market and say, ‘give us some time to make this work.’”

Just ask former Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins, dismissed by an impatient board of directors before his bold programme of much-needed cultural change had the opportunity to take root. And you don’t have to be a FTSE100 chief exec to find yourself at the sharp end. Short-termism can infect any organisation, and will cascade down from the top to affect every employee.

Overcoming Fear

 But not all obstacles to authentic leadership come from the outside. As Richard explains, leaders must also get to grips with their own fears and evolve their consciousness to a higher plane.

“How can a leader be a leader when they haven’t really forged their own self-mastery?” he asks. “You need to develop the emotional intelligence to understand your fears and how your fears affect your decisions, your fellow employees and the company.”

Mastering fear allows leaders to evolve from a Darwinian mindset of basic career survival to a place where they can find authentic meaning in their work: a personal purpose beyond satisfying their own survival or status needs. Once they grasp this, authentic leaders can bring their purpose to life through collaboration and interdependence with others.

“Today’s senior leaders need empower young people to create a new leadership paradigm that’s more about what’s best for the common good than about what’s in it for me,” Richard says.

Examples of authentic leaders who prioritise the common good include Perry Chen, the startup founder who choose to turn Kickstarter into a public benefit corporation rather than pursue a lucrative IPO; the late Ray Anderson, who turned carpet tile maker Interface upside-down in order to create sustainable products, and Unilever CEO Paul Polman, who has led the firm towards a long-term ambition to radically reduce its environmental footprint and enhance its social impact, and use that as a lever to transform business performance.

Everyone Benefits from Authentic Leadership

Of course, the “common good” also includes the wellbeing of your team. Authentic leadership allows you to create values-led cultures that build trust, make work meaningful and drive commercial outperformance. Such cultures unleash the creativity and enthusiasm of employees so that they bring what Richard calls their “discretionary energy” into play.

“Workplaces can be amazing places. They can truly be places where people express themselves and reconnect with who they really are,” says Richard. “Leadership should be about creating a framework for people to connect and contribute, grow and expand, flower and flourish.”

This drives performance. Consider the recent research from merchant bank Ocean Tomo that suggests that over 80% of the value of the S&P 500 now consists of intangibles such as culture, goodwill and intellectual capital. In this context, investment in authentic leadership and strong culture (which, as Richard points out, is a measurable factor) is vital.

“I’ve had first-hand experience of how that real pursuit of meaning and purpose has unleashed the most incredible innovations and creativity,” says Geoff. “In a world of low institutional trust and digital-led consumer power, the only way for companies to sustain themselves in the future is to become completely values and culture-led.”

Let’s take up the challenge

How can we overcome internal and external obstacles and become authentic leaders? There’s no magic formula. It comes down to investing in ourselves so that we are ready to respond with courage and clarity at the critical moments of our leadership journey: those crucible-like moments of epiphany when our life experience, personal growth needs and deep-seated values come to the fore. It’s hard work, but the rewards for success are enormous. Let’s take up the challenge and make ourselves into the best, most authentic leaders we can be.

About Graham Massey

Graham Massey is co-founder of The House, a brand agency that exists to make business and brand a force for good. His passion is getting to the heart of organisations to create values-led cultures that are deeply rooted in purpose.