Human Resources

The Need for Authentic Leadership Is Greater Than Ever

14 December 2020

7 min

Put company values into action to give employees a sense of purpose

Take a moment to recognize your resilience throughout this challenging year.

As we near the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to turn everyone’s lives upside down, we really all deserve a pat on the back for staying the course. It has not been easy. The road has been windy, with unexpected surprises at every turn. And while we still have a little ways to go, fortunately, the end is now in sight.

If there’s ever been a time in our lives when the world has needed strong and authentic leaders to reassure us that there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel, the time is definitely now.

Interestingly enough, as the world came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, it gave us a moment to pause and think about the “big picture.” It forced us to stop projecting far out into the future and focus on solving real problems in the here and now.

This was especially the case for businesses and their leaders. Everything formerly-known-as “business as usual” has gone out the window during the pandemic. For the first time, teams found themselves working 100% remotely, relying squarely on technology to mediate collaboration, communication, and productivity. But as wonderful as technology may be, it quickly became clear that employees needed something more to keep going; they needed a true sense of purpose to keep their spirits up amid all of this uncertainty.

So they looked to their business leaders to inspire and motivate them. And what did the savviest leaders do? They embraced their company values as a source of inspiration and a framework for navigating their organizations through the ups and downs of the pandemic. This is a perfect example of authentic leadership at its best.

The importance of authentic leadership during times of crisis 

Early in the crisis, no one—not even business leaders—had all the answers. In fact, today, we’re still learning a lot as we go. But through it all, they’ve known that providing a “north star” for employees to latch onto was critical to keep business moving forward. Whether it was to give employees a glimmer of hope or simply remind them that, despite all the chaos happening in the world, each and every employee still had an important role to play in a company’s future.

That really is the essence of authentic leadership, defined as a “style of leadership that emphasizes…transparency, genuineness, and honesty within the workplace.”

“With these behaviors, authentic leaders can build strong and honest relationships in which the team members trust and follow the leader. Authentic leaders can typically inspire trust and motivation in their workers as a result of a consistent and authentic presentation of their own leadership.” 

– What Is Authentic Leadership, Indeed 

There are a lot of factors that identify authentic leaders, most commonly:

  • Strong Moral Compass: Putting the needs of the business, its employees, its customers, and its partners ahead of their own.
  • Balanced Processing: Being open to all points of view—even those that may contradict their own views—and wholeheartedly assessing them in the decision-making process.
  • Relational Transparency: Engendering respect by valuing honesty and transparency across the workplace, whether it’s around celebrating wins, providing constructive feedback, or even admitting when they’ve made mistakes of their own.
  • Self-Awareness: Admitting to their strengths and weaknesses, not being afraid to solicit feedback from across the business, and showing genuine empathy in words and actions.

So why is this important? To answer that question, we really should look at the opposite of authentic leadership. For starters, poor leadership does a disservice to everyone within an organization. It has been found that uninspiring leaders drive low engagement with direct reports, increase turnover across teams, and are up to 20% less productive in their roles.

During times of crisis—and even when life goes back to “normal”—the stakes are too high to not embody authenticity in everything we do. This applies to leaders, managers, and individual contributors. Authenticity, therefore, isn’t a top-down strategy—even though many of us look to our leaders as role models to follow—as much as it is a willingness and openness to bring our whole selves to work each and every single day. A big part of this also means listening to each other while never losing sight of our values, both personal and organizational, in our words, our thoughts, our behaviors, and our actions. All of this can drive a sense of purpose.


Authentic leadership goes hand-in-hand with company values

There is no single way to be an authentic leader. What may work well in one company’s culture may not necessarily translate verbatim to another. So when in doubt, many leaders look to their company’s values to reignite purpose, passion, and perseverance for their teams. Here are a few examples of company values in action:

  • Tony’s Chocolonely

According to Tony’s Head of Marketing, Thecla Schaeffer, “Tony’s is one team with one mission” and has made a point to stay that way throughout the pandemic. From not letting go of contract workers or freelancers to cut costs to giving all employees the opportunity to work from home—and even taking dramatic steps to shift the majority of business operations online for the safety and security of all employees—Tony’s has taken a proactive approach to deal with the many challenges of COVID-19. And while this exemplifies how they’ve embraced their company values to guide their decision-making through the pandemic, it reinforces what we already know to be true: The businesses that succeed during and after the COVID-19 pandemic are those that seek new opportunities to unlock the potential of every single employee.

  • Twitter

The social media giant is known for many things, but internally, its flexible work policies and #OneTeam mentality are baked into its core values. And in embracing these values to the fullest, Twitter became one of the first companies to let employees work from home forever, if they choose to, even after the dust from the COVID-19 pandemic settles. But even more than simply a company value, Twitter’s decision is a sign of the times: Because technology has the power to keep teams and companies moving forward—which has undoubtedly proven itself true throughout 2020—there’s no longer any reason to hold onto the belief that work only can happen at the office. And while the company has always been recognized for its flexible work policies, the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink “business as usual” and set new standards supporting how people work today and adapting to the future of work in the years to come.

  • Microsoft

Shortly after the first COVID-induced lockdowns began sending ripples across the world, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella penned an open letter to employees, with a clear message: “We are steadfast in our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more…working together to turn the tide of COVID-19.” And in an inspiring show of humanity since then, the company has adopted a “first responder mindset” to help and support people on the front lines—beyond technology alone—to overcome the challenges caused by this pandemic. Our team has, fortunately, had the pleasure of working closely with Microsoft to build our Microsoft Teams integration. It’s a solution that has not only helped keep teams collaborating and communicating in real-time, even when all working remotely, but has also become an example of how smart technology can reinvent how people work.

  • Patagonia

Before anyone knew the extent to which COVID-19 would rock the world, Patagonia decided to close all business operations—including its warehouses and online operations—to protect its employees during a time of great uncertainty. As a company that champions activism, diversity, equality, environmentalism, and integrity at the heart of everything it does, this decision was a perfect example of its “Business Unusual” values system in action. Unlike many other retailers at the time that decided to keep business going by shifting their focus online, Patagonia put its people and values first. And while they’ve long since resumed business operations, their decisive, though somewhat unconventional, yet wholly people-oriented decision-making is a model to follow for business (and mindset) transformation in a post-COVID world.

Authenticity matters more than ever before

This year has reminded us that authentic leadership is absolutely critical. It’s not merely a tactic for overcoming times of crisis. It’s a perennial strategy for rallying teams around an inspiring sense of purpose rooted in a company’s values. And it drives positive results, too.

Be sure to download our latest eBookFinding Clarity in Chaos: HR Trends and the New World of Work in 2021, where we take a closer look at what authenticity means for businesses today and its implications for how they grow and evolve for years to come.

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