Why I care about authentic leadership

crashMy interest in authentic leadership started when I gained painful first-hand experience with organisations that collapsed spectacularly. I worked alongside leaders in GEC as it turned to dust as Marconi in 2002, again with Royal Bank of Scotland as it acquired ANB AMRO in 2007 and lastly with stricken financial services company Cattles in 2010. (And in case you’re wondering, I don’t always have such an albatross effect – I’ve worked with many highly successful companies before and since!)

In every case, I watched executives at the top of the management tree pursue their growth strategies without being open to critical input from the rest of the organisation that could have made them stop and question. Each cadre of senior leaders generated cultures that drove criticism underground, suppressed information that would be viewed as negative and stifled alternative approaches.

This was all happening even though we presented leaders with survey evidence showing they had lost touch with their followers, who were reluctant or even frightened to come forward with direct challenge.

My experiences convinced me of the case for a stronger moral imperative inside organisations and for having leaders with high levels of integrity who we can trust. Leadership authenticity is vital.

There has been a plethora of literature on the subject of authentic leadership in recent years. Writers like William Gardner argue the case for authentic leadership as an extension of the positive psychology movement, suggesting that in the wake of spectacular corporate collapses, the old leadership models are inadequate to help leaders restore confidence and belief among employees, shareholders and others.

Developing authenticity through leaders’ self-awareness, self -regulation and positive modelling fosters authenticity in followers, creating a virtuous circle of wellbeing and increased performance.

What’s more, I have come to see that coaching can play a pivotal role in supporting leaders to be authentic.

A good executive coach can be an independent sounding board and a critical friend willing and able to ask the challenging questions – something often missing if the prevailing organisation culture is deferential and compliant. We can bring to our clients’ attention what is observed and felt by others and yet remains unspoken.

It is not the coach’s role to make leaders authentic. But the coach can help support individuals to be authentic people with the capability to make the choices that enable them to be authentic leaders. In particular, we can help clients identify their values and figure out how to lead – while staying true to who they are.

Not only does this work foster greater integrity and more considered decision-making. It also makes it far more likely leaders will encourage and be open to the vital input, ideas and – yes – criticism of employees.