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Authentic Leadership

This interview was conducted and published by the Maeil Business Newspaper in South Korea, 25 May, 2018.

Q – When they hear the term ‘authentic leadership,’ most people think of leadership that comes from the heart and that is unwavering in any situation. Yet in your book, you point out that authentic leadership changes depending on the situation, that leaders “reinvent themselves and their organizations to address the emotional and social demands of their followers while staying true to their authentic self.” For those who are unfamiliar with the idea, could you elaborate on this? How can authentic leaders ‘stay true to themselves’ and reinvent themselves at the same time?

A –Authenticity is more than just being yourself.

There’s a mistaken belief that authenticity is unchanging and static.

However, my research shows that authentic leaders adapt to different situations and take on new roles while being faithful to their core values.

In other words, they know how to manage the tension between their protean self and their core identity.

We need to remember that we are multi-faceted people who play multiple roles in our everyday lives and that we do not need to expose every aspect of ourselves at all times.

People like to choose a part of themselves to show to a particular group. This is what psychologists call the “situational self.”

I like the example of Richard Branson. He is admired not just because of his success, but because of the breadth of his entrepreneurial activities, which reflect his many passions.

You could say that authentic leaders can have many faces, but only one heart.


Q – Do you think that in the final analysis, success comes down to whether a leader has shown authentic leadership?

A –Authenticity isn’t going to prevent a leader from making mistakes.

The key difference is that authentic leaders are humble enough to acknowledge their errors and learn from them.

Success is relative: for authentic leaders, failure is always an option. Staying authentic is a work in progress.

When you bring authenticity into your work and leadership style, getting something wrong is not the end of the world and you are able to admit it quickly and easily and then move on to fixing it and learning a lesson from it.


Q – You identify three factors of authentic leadership: heart, habit, harmony. For clarification, are all three required for someone to become an authentic leader? If there is a global figure who you think possesses all three characteristics of authentic leadership, please share that person’s story with us.

A – To be an authentic leader, you need to tick all three boxes: heart, habit and harmony.

Authenticity means feeling good about who you are, behaving in line with your values, pushing your limits and being concerned about the wellbeing of others.

It is hard to find someone who embodies all three, but the new Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, is a good example. His low-profile leadership approach earned him the reputation of a nice guy who could pull teams together and get work done.

Sundar grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in India, studied metallurgical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology and then won a scholarship to Stanford, going on to complete his MBA at Wharton Business School.

His leadership mantra is ´Let others succeed


Q – The first factor, heart, is about finding one’s passion and then sharing it with the workforce. Even if a leader finds something that he or she is passionate about, that may change over time. How can leaders know it will last, so that employees can help make that passion come true?

A –Our life stories are the most powerful source of our passion.

For example, Hiroko Samejima, the founder and CEO of andu amet, a brand of high-quality leather bags, found her passion in combining fashion and ethics. Hiroko is one Japan’s most outstanding entrepreneurs. She believes in slow fashion and her passion for what she does and her belief in ethical luxury is contagious. Research has found that happy people are able to make others happier.

In psychology, this is known as emotional contagion.


Q – Apart from pure passion, what makes employees follow a leader’s passion and work toward helping them achieve it?

A –Passion must be accompanied by an uplifting vision.People will follow a leader´s passion and work toward achieving his/her vision when it is meaningful and they feel part of it.

Take the example of Carlo Volpi, the president of an Italian winery founded in 1914. He developed a vision for the future of the winery by creating a truly inspiring story that encapsulates the meaning of what the company does.

Leading by biography, Carlo tells his own story to employees: “We are a blend of history, a name and wine. It all started with a small tavern run by two or three people. We don´t just sell wine, we sell wine and a name. The wine is the name of the family and Volpi is on the labels. This is important because the story behind the name gives our customers confidence.”


Q – You say that the second essence of authentic leadership is habit. Rather than being born as an authentic leader, we continually learn and grow to become one. What do you think is the most important thing people learn from others to become an authentic leader?

A – Staying authentic is hard work but it pays off in the long run: it is like exercising. While you are training, you feel tired and strained but it is good for your body.

Being authentic requires self-reflection, to articulate life principals, delay gratification and adapt to new circumstances.

In this endless process of growth, the most important thing leaders learn from others is to appreciate honest feedback. A true assessment of authenticity comes from evaluating the gap between our own perception and others´ feedback. As we all know, we tend to overestimate our own performance and skills. Most of us tend to think a little too highly of ourselves, so closing this feedback gap is a first important step to becoming a more authentic leader.


Q – A ‘growth mindset,’ first introduced by Professor Carol Dweck, is what separates an authentic leader from someone who is not, when it comes to habit. Do you think leaders with fixed mindsets can completely switch to a growth mindset? If yes, how?

A – It is not easy, but through certain mental exercises, a kind of “mind-fitness”, you can teach yourself to think differently.

But if you have a fixed mindset, you are likely to tell yourself things like “I´m not good at this, what´s the point of even trying?”

A person with a growth mindset believes there is room for learning and improving.

Carol Dweck suggests a plan to cultivate a growth mindset:

  1. Think of a time when you overcame a learning struggle and solved a problem.
  2. Take note of your hard work strategies and get help from others.
  3. Then you can write a letter to your younger self about this learning-related struggle. How did it make you feel? How did you overcome it and what did it teach you?


Q – The last component of authentic leadership is harmony, which is ‘looking after others people and ‘seeking a harmonious unity between yourself and others.’ By ‘harmonious unity,’ do you mean building and working harmoniously as a team? Or is there more to it?

A – It is not only building and working as a team, it also involves putting in place structures and systems so that the organization can function as a successful performing unit over time.


Q – How can leaders seek and create a ‘harmonious unity’ with their employees, given that each employee is different and may have different values?

A –Managing diversity is key to building an authentic organization.

But diversity can be a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, differences in perspectives and approaches can stimulate a more in-depth understanding of the issues facing a company, along with finding more innovative solutions to problems.

On the negative side, however, differences in values may create tension and conflict between people. Leaders can seek harmonious unity around shared company values that all employees buy into. For example, a multinational German company in the construction sector, PERI, has created a strong culture around key values such as open-mindedness and respect. Thus, people may disagree and express their own views in a psychologically safe environment that encourages creativity and innovation.


Q – People can choose the kind of leadership they want to show. What do you think motivates a person to becoming an authentic leader?

A – It´s true, people can choose the kind of leadership they want to show.

You can choose the easy way: to copy others; or you can work a bit harder and develop your unique leadership style.

The motivation to become an authentic leader comes from the satisfaction of standing by what you believe in and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Authenticity is strongly related to subjective well-being. Authentic people say they are happier, have higher self-esteem and enjoy better relationships with others.


Q – Do you think there is a situation in which an authentic leader becomes inauthentic? If yes, please tell us the circumstance and how the leader could overcome it.

A – Yes, it is possible to lose authenticity. Becoming a genuine leader is a work in progress.

Staying faithful to yourself in business and life requires constant work; moving to new roles, adapting to new situations and taking risks.

To overcome these transitions, leaders are constantly asking questions such as “am I prepared to take this challenge?” Take the example of Rakesh Aggarwal, who moved from his native India to Australia in search of opportunities. During difficult times at the company, Rakesh would appear calm, as though everything were under control. But underneath this appearance of confidence he admits he was filled with doubt. His self-confidence may not have been genuine, but his preparedness to take control of the situation was.


Q – Many top Korean companies are family-run. In such family-run, top-down workplace cultures, it is not easy to be an authentic leader, as the founding family members ‘rule’ the place. In a workplace culture like this, how can someone show authentic leadership?

A – As a leader, you need to match your style to the expectations of your team.

In doing so, you may need to become an “authentic chameleon.” For example, one of the key qualities of authentic leaders is humility.

This reveals itself through power distance, the way in which power is distributed and the extent to which the less powerful accept that power is distributed unequally.

Put simply, people in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures. A new study has found that humble leaders are most effective in low power distance cultures. In Korea, which has a high power distance preference, modest leaders need to show they can command. In the end, you need to calibrate which of the nine attributes behind the 3Hs of authentic leadership match the culture of your workplace.


Q – As an academic, how do you try to become an authentic leader in your workplace?

A – As an academic, I wear different hats – researcher, teacher, author, speaker, and mentor.

As I have mentioned, we play different roles and it takes constant calibration to be true to all of them. I try to manage the paradoxes of authenticity by being true to my many stakeholders, by showing a sense of presence while learning and innovating and by helping to shape the character of our future leaders.

Margarita Mayo

I´m Margarita Mayo. I´ve been a Professor of Leadership and Psychology at IE Business School since 2000. Prior to that I was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard University and professor at Ivey Business School. I feel passionate about scientific dissemination, and I have more than 20 years of international experience teaching courses on soft skills, giving keynote conferences and coaching executives on leadership development and change management. Always eager to help develop the next generation of leaders.

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