Authentic leadership in the current climate

Mobile phone being held, with the word "leadership" on the screen.

What are the implications for future leadership and leadership development within organisations and what role do L&D and HR play in supporting leaders? Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay provide some answers

In the seemingly endless months of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, the importance and value of leadership has become evident and given heightened prominence by leaders providing people with essential support, clarity, and a sense of direction. In the last few months, there has been much discussion about responsible and ethical leadership, particularly in politics.

Why would anyone want to be led by you? That is how Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee used to begin questioning groups of managers. It is a powerful and probing question: it puts the leader’s relationship with their followers at the forefront. Leadership is not about position or status; it is about what you do. How can a leader best work with others to strengthen the people and the organisation so that it can best respond to the challenges they face? How to best overcome difficulties inherent in an organisation undergoing the sort of severe strain most of us have experienced over the last few years? How can leaders be confident they have grasped the difficulties of leading today and be sure of support throughout the change journey? If leadership is about what you do and are seen to do, the pandemic has shown us there are leaders everywhere – such as working in hospitals and in voluntary organisations serving the community.

There is no single ‘best way’ of achieving the right kind of leadership within your own organisation. A lot depends on understanding and clarifying where your organisation needs to be and to assess the background and culture of the organisation. Having taken steps to thoroughly understand where that organisation is now, a leadership approach needs to be developed based on how much of a big jump it is to reach your goal.

When you ask people what matters most to them, feeling respected by leaders often tops the list

As the pandemic crisis continued, the range of approaches required to lead was, importantly, focussed on people working together though a complex and changing environment and people contributing collaboratively with sources of information, ideas and effective implementation.

Authentic leadership

Authentic leadership has gained currency in these times. According to Herminia Ibarra in an article in Harvard Business Review, “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.” In times of uncertainty and questioning moral values, this is not surprising. As Goffee and Jones found out, we need some firm rocks of security to hang onto in the face of disappearing and changing boundaries. We want to be led by people we can believe in, that they will look after our interests and are comfortable revealing their differences and some of their weaknesses, up to a point.

What does authentic leadership entail? It is a style of leadership that focuses on transparent and ethical leader behaviour which encourages open sharing of information. Authenticity shouldn’t be equated with simply ‘being yourself’ and therefore the same everywhere – it is context and people specific. An authentic leader engenders trust by the way they deal with others. Trust and respect engender strong team relationships and engagement. When you ask people what matters most to them, feeling respected by leaders often tops the list.

Effective future leadership

If ever there was a need to review leadership approaches, it is now, when traditional leadership has showed its weaknesses during the pandemic. Centralised heroic leadership received much attention in the past. Jack Welch at GE and Carlos Ghosn at Nissan have been seen in the past as apparently having universal qualities and they became a template which sat uneasily across different times and organisations. However, in the long term they have displayed the weaknesses of this approach: that decisions become unquestioned and unchallenged, even when flaws emerge, also buy-in suffers and factions can develop which can be detrimental to the long-term and sustainable success of the organisation.  A more appropriate leadership style emphasises personal qualities and behaviours which are in tune with the context and people involved.

Four key leadership behaviours

One of the most prominent exponents of authentic leadership, Bill George sets out four indicators of leadership behaviours which match today’s challenges:

• Authentic leaders are constantly growing.

• Authentic leaders match their behaviour to their context.

• Authentic leaders are not perfect, nor do they try to be.

• Authentic leaders are sensitive to the needs of others.

How to develop authentic leaders

Developing leaders should emphasise self-awareness and personal responsibility. Developing the right culture takes time, but is most supportive and effective with role models providing an essential reinforcement. Coaching can also be valuable. As HR and L&D professionals it is helpful to develop and circulate a leadership behaviours checklist to use with leaders and which is tailored particular cultures. We have given an example below. This can encourage specific authentic leadership behaviours and will be updated over time. Importantly, such checklists and goals arise from leaders and followers themselves, for example through leadership workshops.

Example of authentic leadership checklist

Has developed a sense of meaningYes / In placeNo / Needs work
​• I have a clear vision which I have shared with the team  
• I communicate to team members how what they do makes a difference  
Encourages collaboration  
• In team meetings I ask for and act on ideas from team members  
• I encourage everyone to voice their ideas and concerns  
• I have recognised team achievements publicly at least once in the last month  
Shows interest in the individual  
• I know what motivates each person in my team  
• I have spoken to each team member to discover their interests and passions outside work  
Provides help and support  
• I am always available for my team  
• I provide on-going help and support to every individual in the team  
Provides regular feedback  
• In the past week I have provided motivational and developmental feedback to each member in my team  

Employees come first in a crisis

We were struck by some guidance that had been put together for leading and managing NHS staff during this pandemic: we feel much of this advice is valuable for leading in many organisations at this current time:

1. Be kind to yourself and others.

2. Assist staff to acknowledge and manage their concerns.

3. Recognise the importance of social support.

4. Take account of moral and ethical considerations.

5. Importance of taking a break and keeping up social contacts.

6. Continue development supervision and training.

7. Don’t cut yourself off from others through being too busy.

8. Visibly support frontline staff.

9. Adhere to working protocols.

10. Maintain mental health.


As we hopefully enter the post-pandemic phase, leadership is required to face up to a changed future. Successful leaders today must question whether they need take a fresh view on their approach to still be successful tomorrow.

Authentic and people-centred leaders must direct their attention towards how to gain the wholehearted support of their people; it is clear they need to role model ethical leadership, ensuring their actions match their words.

Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development and Sarah Cook is MD of the Stairway Consultancy


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