The role of authentic leadership in employee engagement

The recent upswing in corporate scandals and management misconduct has contributed to create a of lack of trust in professional organisations and social institutions alike, says Juan-Carlos Pastor

Over the past few years, people have come to distrust leaders. Individuals no longer trust their leaders based solely on their titles, diplomas and credentials. They want to follow real people who inspire and excite them.
Leading authentically becomes especially important in difficult times when social order gives way to uncertainty, and a sense of insecurity invades people’s emotions. Authentic leaders act in the best interest of their organisations, have open communication with their teams, show consistency between their words and deeds, and are able and willing to admit their mistakes. They can therefore build the trust that teams and organisations need to overcome challenges and move forwards.
Authentic leaders are effective role models that have a long-lasting impact on the values and attitudes of their followers, who increase their engagement with the leader’s vision and the organisations. Followers of authentic leaders sacrifice their self interest for the collective and act as catalyst of social and organisational change.

Defining qualities
While different authors have provided a variety of definitions about what authentic leadership is, most of them agree on the following four characteristics.
Authentic leaders do not pretend to be someone else – they are aware of their true selves and their strengths and weaknesses. Richard Branson and Charles Schwartz have significant learning disabilities, but rather than hide them , they were open and looked for close relationships with their teams to compensate for their weaknesses. By doing so, they became real and authentic team leaders.
True leaders stay away from the short-term external goals of money, fame, power and glory, and are passionate about meaningful causes. Having a purpose in life means achieving goals that touch the lives of people. When leaders lose sight of the value that their organisations add to society, their followers and clients become objectified and the quality of their relationships and the service provided deteriorates. Indra Nooyi from Pepsico, for example, changed the company’s strategy from a focus on sugar-sweetened drinks and fatty snacks to sell more healthy products with her ‘performance- with-purpose’ programme to increase the wellbeing of employees and customers. She made social responsibility a main pillar of the new strategy.
These leaders empower people and create communities. Employees want to be recognised by their efforts, to believe that their contribution is meaningful for their peers or clients. They also want to be part of a group or community and have a sense of belonging. Authentic leaders are inclusive, value diversity and always find ways to integrate every member of their teams. They are more interested in their people and development than their own success, and are coaches and servant leaders who infuse their leadership role with duties and obligations toward their followers.
They tell their stakeholders what they ‘need’ to hear rather than what they ‘want’ to hear, and are less concerned about meeting quarterly estimates and more focused on creating long-term shareholder value. They know that success and effectiveness are always short-lived, however, meaning and significance last forever. They are concerned with long-lasting contributions and leaving a mark on the people around them. Authentic leaders leave a lasting legacy in their organisations and make them better places for the next generation.

Long-term authenticity
I have found many executives in my training seminars who think that leaders should work hard to appear powerful, avoid any signs of doubt, hide their weaknesses, and most of all, give the impression that they are always in control. Authentic leadership, however, is not about acting and pretending to be someone that you are not. It means being worthy of your followers´ trust because it is only their trust that will allow you to make difficult decisions. Authentic leadership is an inside out process coming from self-awareness and being true to yourself – honesty and integrity are at the core of leadership authenticity.
If you want to develop authenticity in your relationships, there are some guidelines. Spend time increasing your self-awareness and reflect on your own autobiography – the trials you faced, the people who meant something important to you, especially authority figures. Explore the events, places and people who shaped you and draw conclusions for your own leadership style. Value honest feedback, avoid comfort zones and take risks and face new challenges.
Spend time knowing your colleagues, subordinates and people. Show interest in those around you and spend time with those who you depend on. Find out more about their backgrounds, motivations, goals and ambitions – see them as multidimensional people, removing any barriers between you. Share your feelings, thoughts, doubts and weaknesses, and become a real person for them so that they can identify with you.
Even though becoming an authentic leader seems simple, it is hard work. It requires a strong commitment to your followers and being true to yourself, particularly when external demands and enticements make it all the most difficult. Yet, authentic leadership always pays off in the long-term.