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Effective leader and authenticity


Add authenticity if you want to lead with authority and approachability 

Published 9 February 2024 in Leadership • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

In today’s high-stakes business world, striking a balance between being approachable and authoritative is tricky. Here are seven steps to becoming an authentic and effective leader.

It’s one of the biggest conundrums facing leaders today: how do you balance approachability while maintaining your authority? To empower your team to produce their best work, you need to encourage them to speak up and be creative while maintaining accountability to ensure the project doesn’t overrun. In a quest to balance the two, leaders sometimes swing between a “command and control” management style (issuing orders and checking up) and being overly nice. This is not only confusing for your team, but risks coming across as dishonest. The trick in overcoming the approachable/authority paradox is holding your authority with authenticity. In this article, I outline seven leadership behaviors that will help you to lead with care and courage.

Distinguish between authenticity and niceness

The mistake many leaders make is confusing authenticity and niceness. Authentic leaders are consistent, transparent, and emotionally intelligent, creating an atmosphere of trust and credibility. Niceness, on the other hand, can be seen as a form of lying and betrays a fear of conflict. It may involve withholding negative feedback or making concessions that undermine your authority. Instead, leaders need to practice kindness, which is based on respectfully speaking the truth even when that feels uncomfortable. Being kind is an essential component of good leadership whereas being nice isn’t. It might temporarily send you to the top of the popularity charts, but it can harm your chances of leading effectively in the long run.

Take the example of John, a team leader in an investment firm who has a reputation for being excessively nice to his team. He avoids confrontation and often makes concessions to keep everyone happy. One day, a critical project is at risk of failing since several team members have not met their deadlines. Instead of addressing the issue and holding the individuals accountable, John gives an extension and takes on additional work himself. This decision, while well-intentioned, ultimately undermines his leadership authority. The team perceives him as inconsistent and lacking assertiveness in upholding project standards. Over time, the team realizes that they need a leader who can make tough decisions, provide honest feedback, hold people to account, and ensure standards are maintained. They need someone who can be kind and tough.

Build trust

Trust is the cornerstone of an authentic leader and is built by being true to yourself and to your principles. An authentic leader listens actively, shares personal experiences, is emotionally available, and admits mistakes. Such authenticity fosters psychological safety and open communication. This encourages team members to have confidence in their leader’s intentions and abilities. Trust, in turn, leads to stronger relationships, loyalty, and a willingness to follow the leader’s guidance.

Communicate effectively

Clear and open communication is vital in high-stakes situations. Authentic leaders communicate with clarity, empathy, and honesty, creating a safe space for team members to express themselves. They also listen to feedback and input from their team – reducing misunderstandings, conflicts, and human error. Clear communication ensures that team members understand the leader’s expectations and work toward common goals.

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A failure to communicate effectively was on dramatic display during the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. After two decades in the country, the decision to withdraw was complex and sensitive. The lack of clear, consistent, and timely communication from various government officials instead led to confusion and chaos, followed by a rapid takeover by the Taliban. This, in turn, sowed further mistrust and a public backlash, underscoring the importance of effective communication.

Act with empathy and understanding

Empathy is a fundamental component of authentic leadership. Leaders who are empathetic connect with the emotions and perspectives of their team. They show understanding and support for the challenges that their team faces, especially in high-stress situations. Acknowledging the team’s concerns and needs demonstrates empathy, fostering stronger relationships and creating an environment where team members feel valued and understood.

Set boundaries

There is a big difference between being an authoritarian leader and being a leader with authority. The latter will set clear boundaries around what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, delineating their expectations and the consequences of actions. Without boundaries, leaders risk losing control and direction within the team. Leaders should define their role as decision-makers and guides while also respecting the autonomy of their team members. This balance ensures that leadership authority is preserved.

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These limits also play a fundamental role in building and maintaining trust. In the absence of clear boundaries, particularly around roles and responsibilities, team members are left in a state of uncertainty, unsure of the limits and expectations in their interactions. They may find themselves questioning if they’re crossing lines or going too far. Trust is nurtured when leaders take the initiative to establish boundaries. This act of defining the parameters in interactions helps to establish a sense of psychological safety and predictability – both crucial elements of trust. 

Lead by example

Authentic leaders set an example by practicing the values and behaviors they expect from their team. By consistently upholding these standards, they inspire their team to follow suit. Leading by example reinforces the leader’s authority, as the team recognizes that their leader lives the principles they advocate. This practice also empowers team members, demonstrating that success is achievable by trusting and respecting the leader.

Empowerment and accountability

Leaders must find the balance between empowering team members to take initiative and holding them accountable for their actions and decisions. Empowerment fosters ownership, innovation, and a sense of responsibility. It encourages team members to use their creativity and initiative to contribute to the team’s success. However, accountability ensures that standards are maintained.

US Navy SEALs are known for their rigorous training and demanding missions where they face life-and-death decisions every day. They are highly trained and encouraged to take the initiative and make critical decisions on the battlefield. They also adapt and innovate, as their missions require flexibility and quick thinking. This empowerment makes them feel responsible for the mission’s success. However, they also have strict standards and protocols to follow: their missions are high stakes, requiring safety and excellence. SEAL leaders are accountable for their team’s actions, and this accountability applies to each team member. The SEALs empower their team members to make split-second decisions while also holding them accountable to meet standards and perform exceptionally. This balance explains their effectiveness in one of the most high-stakes environments in the world. 

In conclusion, leadership is neither a popularity contest nor a power trip. Especially in uncertain times, leaders need to build trust and strengthen relationships within the team by being empathetic, communicative, and accountable. They use their authority to inspire confidence and guide their team to success, rather than micromanaging every detail. By being authentic and consistent, leaders can bridge the gap between approachability and authority.


George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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