Authentic leadership steers firms through unsteady, uncertain times (Guest commentary)

Leaders should build trust with employees
By Maureen Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/14/2012

Organizational leaders operate in global economic uncertainty where the speed of change and complexity of stakeholder demands produce a challenging and often stressful platform for performance.

For their organizations to succeed, leaders must find ways to engage and inspire others while dealing with multiple — and often conflicting — demands from customers, senior management, boards of directors and staff.

Employees, whose confidence may be rattled by the pace and ambiguity of pressured working environments, are seeking greater transparency and stronger relationships of trust with their bosses. Organizations are finding that bosses who can communicate and lead with authenticity are making a difference.

Emotional intelligence is an important contributor to authenticity. In addition, leaders must understand and be comfortable expressing their values and be able to manage their behaviour and stay true to these values even when feeling stressed or facing adversity.

Employees are seeking meaning and significance from their work, according to Bill George, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. They are willing to trust a leader when they can personally identify with his values and see him holding fast to those values despite the high-stakes, turbulent environment.

A critical prerequisite for authenticity is self-understanding. Authentic leaders know their own values, strengths and weaknesses, and their impact on others. This helps them to manage themselves, and others, under stress.

Workers don’t expect bosses to be perfect but they do need to trust that their leaders are acting in the interest of the organization and its stakeholders, rather than pursuing political or personal agendas.

Self-understanding builds trust in relationships, particularly when individuals are taking risks. Employees want to believe their leaders know themselves well enough to assess and manage the risk they are assuming for themselves, and asking others to take on.

Authentic behaviour is also related to confidence, self-esteem, performance and retention among employees. Employers that develop and support leadership authenticity will be more successful in the competition for talent.

Helping build trust

Most organizations realize leadership development is crucial to their current and future success. A Conference Board of Canada survey of HR executives in 2010 identified key talent retention and building leadership as top priorities. In the short term, management and leadership development is the highest priority; in the longer term, succession management is the second highest priority.

To make the situation more challenging, many employers target the middle ranks of management for restructuring, increasing the responsibilities of the remaining leaders. Organizations no longer have the luxury of ignoring leaders whose behaviours erode trust. Employees don’t leave organizations, they leave “bad bosses” — bosses they do not trust to act authentically.

Most people who move into a leadership role want to be good at it. They want to fine-tune their behaviour so their talents can contribute to long-term performance and growth.

The journey towards authenticity is a developmental one. It starts with self-examination and self-awareness. Self-understanding can be enhanced through processes that provide feedback. Behaviours that demonstrate authenticity can be practised and learned. Training and coaching can enhance a leader’s efforts to better align his values, communication and behaviour.

HR is often at the critical junction between employees and management. HR is privy to valuable information that can help individuals and organizations improve the quality of their leadership. HR can also support talent development processes that provide behavioural feedback and enhance the development of leadership competencies.

The best organizations listen carefully to their HR departments and use its input and expertise to invest strategically in the development of leadership capability.

High-quality leadership is a competitive advantage for organizations, especially during turbulent times. So organizations need to support leaders who want to improve the ability to build trusting, authentic relationships with staff and other stakeholders.

Maureen Brown is a senior associate at the Niagara Institute in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The institute has partnered with Hamilton’s McMaster University on a three-day leadership development program. For more information, visit

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