Leadership Roundtable: What does it take to become an authentic leader in the 21st century?


What does it take to become an authentic leader in the 21st century? What challenges must be overcome, and what rewards are there in terms of personal fulfilment and business success. Above all, how can leaders justify investing time and effort in leadership, values and culture?

Graham Massey
Graham Massey

To answer these questions, we brought together Graham Massey, business head of The House, a brand agency that specialises in building purpose, culture and brand; 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.

Richard Barrett
Richard Barrett

Graham:           Do you think we’re facing a crisis of authenticity in business leadership?

Geoff:               I’ve spent 26 years in corporate life and I’m not sure that many people are truly authentic in the workplace. They are very authentic when they’re with their families, but I don’t think they are very authentic when they show up at work.

Geoff McDonald
Geoff McDonald

Graham:           Part of the problem is that leaders have certain roles thrust upon them by their organisations. They’re trapped between what they truly believe in and want to achieve, and what the organisation, rather unhealthily, forces them to do.

Richard:           ‘Trapped’ is an interesting word.  I would say that it depends on the level of fear that they have about being who they truly are. When you have fears about your performance and whether others perceive you as successful, then you’re going to let all these outside influences affect your behaviour.

Graham:           How can leaders overcome those fears?

Richard:           It’s a good question. How can a leader be a leader if they haven’t really forged their own personal self-mastery? You need enough emotional intelligence to understand your fears and how your fears are affecting your decisions, and to take actions to mitigate the impact of your fears on your team and on the company.

Graham:          So it’s a case of investing in yourself?

Richard:           Yes, it’s about evolving to a higher plane of consciousness, away from satisfying basic needs for survival and status and towards integrating and aligning with others to serve a greater good.

Geoff:               Often, I think, leaders will face epiphany moments or crucible moments in their lives that truly ground them and prod them towards this kind of personal evolution. A good example is the CEO of Walmart and his visit to meet families affected by Hurricane Katrina – this had a huge impact on him in terms of shifting Walmart’s view around climate change and its role in society as an organisation.

Richard:           I have certainly noticed in my work with leaders that it’s common to hit a point, often in your fifties, where you’ve let go of your “personality mask”, found your personal passion and purpose and are ready to reach that integrating stage of your psychological development.

Graham:           Of course, having the epiphany alone is not enough if you don’t then have the freedom to act on it. It’s telling, I think, that when you look at inspiring leaders like the late Ray Anderson at Interface, they are often either the company owners or have been in a position of power for long enough to have a freedom that is not normally extended to a typical corporate CEO.

Geoff:                Yeah, I think there’s some truth in that. Look at family businesses, for example. Many of them achieve longevity because the business is run and led with future generations of the family in mind, not for a bunch of shareholders who are putting pressure on them every quarter.

Graham:            Exactly. It makes me think of Anthony Jenkins at Barclays. He was trying to deliver a much-needed change to the culture there, but it seems that the directors and shareholders ran out of time and patience with him.  He was trying to effect a deep-rooted cultural change and they weren’t getting the results fast enough.  

Geoff:                I think one of the real evils in corporate world today is this absolute focus and drive for efficiency. With that comes short-termism, with that comes an inability to have any slack in the system, an inability to go to the market and say, ‘Give us some time, we need time to make this work.’

Richard:             That’s a great point. And of course, by focusing narrowly on short-term performance and financial results, you end up neglecting the very foundations of strong performance, which is culture and people.

Graham:             I totally agree. I remember working as MD of a listed company – we had around 1000 employees and ten or twelve operating business, which was a lot to keep across. And what was the chairman’s first question at every board meeting? “Have you seen the share price today, Graham”.

Geoff:                 What Paul Polman has done really, really well is spending huge amounts of time and energy educating investors, to a point where he is now able to say ‘well, if you do not want to invest in us in the long-term, then don’t invest in us.’

Graham:             It’s a remarkable achievement given how difficult it can be to sell people on investing in the long-term. How can purposeful business leaders better make the case for investing in culture, values and their own leadership?

Richard:             It’s simple. Financial performance will follow from cultural performance, as long as you have the right strategy. The leader’s job is to create the framework in which people can grow and expand. It’s really all about unleashing the potential of the team by creating a cultural environment where people feel they have a voice, feel connected to their own passions and so bring their creativity and discretionary energy to the workplace.

Geoff:                 Also, I think there are ample examples out there of what happens when you forget about your values and the culture of the organisation.

Richard:               I saw some research recently from a merchant bank, Ocean Tomo, which suggested that S&P500 share prices are now made up of 85% intangibles, such as culture and intellectual capital. In that kind of situation, investing in culture and values is absolutely critical.

Graham:             Absolutely – you can point to cases such as Zappos, where Amazon has essentially bought it for its culture. Before Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, he founded another company where the culture went so badly wrong he sold it so he could start again! So he is clearly placing huge commercial emphasis on values and culture.

Geoff:                 I think the other thing is that we are living at a time where all of us have got very, very low levels of trust in institutions – in part because it’s easier than ever to hold institutions to account using digital tools. Young people want to affiliate themselves with organisations that they can trust and brands that they can trust. So I think the only way for companies in the future to sustain themselves within that context, is if they are completely values and culture led.

Richard:             Yeah, I agree with that.  As I like to say, “in the 21st century, the rat race will be replaced by the values race.”

Geoff:                 I like that!

Richard:             There’s another very interesting study I’ve read recently by George Land about what happens to our creativity as we grow up. Land found that 98% of the children had genius level of creativity at age three to five, but only 32 per cent had genius level creativity five years later. Five years later still, only 10 per cent had genius level creativity. 200,000 adults over the age of twenty-five have been given the same tests and only 2 per cent had genius level creativity. So what happened to our creativity? Land concludes that it’s our socialisation process, which hinders our creative potential by imposing value judgments such as good, bad, proper, improper and so on.

Graham:             Fascinating.

Richard:             We are born as hugely creative souls but that gets socialised out of us. If self-expression isn’t nurtured in the children it gets knocked out, so by the time they’re entering the workforce they’ve lost that creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Graham:             Do businesses of the future now have a responsibility to correct that by creating environments in businesses where self-expression can be brought to the fore again?

Richard:             I think we all have that responsibility, as parents and as educators. But yes, business too. The workplace can truly be an amazing place. It can be a place where people recover who they really are. That’s what leadership should be about.

Geoff:                 This is where the power of purpose and meaning in organisations lies. I’ve had first-hand experience of how that real pursuit of meaning and purpose has unleashed the most incredible innovations and creativity.

Graham:             So to wrap up, what is the challenge to business here? How are leaders going to better drive this change in organisations where there is resistance?

Richard:             Well, we’ve left the world in a hell of a mess. Those of us who are in a more senior position now need to empower the youth to bring about a new leadership paradigm that’s more about what’s best for the common good rather than what’s in it for me. The challenge to the youth is to learn how to lead yourself, and the challenge to the rest of us is to create the conditions where the youth can do that.

Geoff:                 The positive is that we are slowly starting to see the change we so badly need in how we value organisations and their contributions, and in our systems and governance structures.

Graham:             Thank you. I think these are really compelling reasons for us to take the time and effort to invest in ourselves as leaders and to invest in values and culture for our organisations.

Richard:             And if I can just add: if you want to manage it, you’d better measure it. Not once, but every year.