How Do You Become an Authentic Leader?

Leaders are increasingly engaging in fierce competition over their companies’ very identities.

At risk is their ability to successfully manage their relationships with customers, investors, partners, employees and others due to the rapidly changing context for global business.

The appearance and empowerment of new stakeholders, the emergence of a “flat world,” and the digital revolution have created radically democratized access to information and unprecedented transparency, making the quality of an organization’s products and services apparent to all customers and prospects.

Additionally, corporate citizenship, environmental behavior and how companies treat their employees are visible across the company and to potential applicants and public interest groups.

This presents leaders with a daunting challenge … . and an opportunity.

The authentic organization

A survey of CEOs commissioned by the Arthur W. Page Society examined the drivers and implications of these shifts and proposes a set of strategic options for leaders to help them respond to these realities.

To seize the opportunity at hand, leaders and their organizations need to engage in fully interactive ways. Most importantly, companies must be grounded in a sure sense of why it exists, what it stands for and what differentiates it in the marketplace. Those principles, beliefs, mission, purpose and value proposition must be expressed in consistent corporate behavior and action.

Authenticity is the coin of the realm for successful companies and for those who lead them.

The imperative of trust

Of all the challenges facing organizations, perhaps the most fundamental are those surrounding the issue of trust – at the level of the employee, the company and the broader societal level.

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With accelerated levels of transparency and increasing dependence on global partners to get work done, leaders have far less operational control than ever before, but still have the ultimate responsibility for results. Fulfilling that responsibility will require imagination, courage, innovation, shared values and trust.

4 key corporate challenges

To successfully adapt to the new business and societal context will require new forms of leadership to tackle these corporate challenges:

  1. Understand what the company and its employees truly value — In the past, these principles, credos or beliefs were dictated from the top. Now leaders must address increased delegation and empowerment, while maintaining consistency of brand, customer relationships, public reputation and day-to-day operations. Values are the glue shaping behavior and uniting goals – build a management system based on them so they become pervasive.
  2. Cultivate & develop integrated, multi-stakeholder relationships — Companies can no longer be different things to different constituents – they must be the same across their entire ecosystem. Greater resources no longer provide a significant competitive advantage, so the key to winning this battle is a consistent and authentic reputation built from support among multiple stakeholders.
  3. Enable employees with social media skills and tools — Empower employees with collaborative tools, training and trust so they can strategically and responsibly interact with the external world. Mastery of these capabilities must be acquired; appropriate policies to ensure responsible use must be developed; and apply them both internally, to build understanding and consensus on core values, and externally, to build influence and relationships of trust.
  4. Consciously build & manage trust in all its dimensions — The challenge of building trust is more acute than ever. It’s a complex equation involving everything from employee/employer relationships, financial management and corporate governance, to the quality of an organization’s goods and services and its responsiveness to societal issues. Have a conscious strategy for building trust internally and externally, and operating in the public interest.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Michelle M. Smith

A highly accomplished international speaker, strategist, and author on performance improvement; Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, employee engagement and talent. She’s published and presented more than 1,100 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and governments.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished industry leader who has worked in every facet of recognition and incentives, both domestically and internationally.

She has appeared on Fox Television and the BBC, and been featured in magazines like Fortune, Business Week, Inc., and Return on Performance; as well as national radio programs, and contributions to the books “Bull Market” by Seth Godin, “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk,” and “Social Media Isn’t Social.”

Michelle is President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University. She’s Vice President, Research for the Business Marketing Association and serves on the Boards of the Incentive Federation and the Incentive & Engagement Solutions Council. She was also the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine.