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What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership is the ability to be your true self regardless of a situation or environment

When it comes to building a diverse workforce, there are few things as important as the need for authentic leadership. The idea of authenticity in general is crucial in building a strong employer brand and making the workplace an attractive proposition for future employees, but it isn’t often seen as a major driver of organisational performance or a source of productivity or inspiration.

However, over the next few years, the idea of authenticity will become front of mind for many organisations that will come to realise its enormous potential. In leadership specifically, authenticity has the potential to help organisations not only attract better talent and have a diverse, engaged workforce, but also encourage employees at all levels to make a real difference to the business.

Authentic leadership is the ability to be your true self and act in the same way regardless of a situation or environment – whether at work, at home, in front of clients, seniors, colleagues or protégés. It’s about being honest about yourself and feeling comfortable and safe in doing so. In leadership, such an approach is very important – it influences the way employees think, behave and how they feel about their place of work.

How? First, it demonstrates to people internally and externally that a person can end up in a leadership position by being themselves and staying true to their values. For many minority groups, that’s an important message. Take women in tech. It’s no secret that the tech sector is suffering a large skills crisis. Not enough young people are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in order to fill crucial roles in a world of digital transformation.

Yet the industry is not very diverse – especially when it comes to gender balance. Females make up only 30% of the tech workforce. That’s partly because some women feel leadership roles are filled by people with particular characteristics – many of those associated with being male. Authentic leadership tackles such stereotypes and makes employees feel that they can be themselves and still fit in, regardless of their gender, background, ethnicity or sexuality.

Secondly, authentic leadership creates a trusting environment – where employees can be the best versions of themselves. This can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line and goes back to the idea that authenticity will become crucial in driving performance. Studies have shown that if employees are able to be their whole selves, productivity can increase by as much as 30%.

Authentic leadership drives greater engagement with individuals, teams and wider business. It can break down barriers and make it easier for employees to challenge the status quo – often causing a positive ripple effect and driving cultural change from the bottom up. It can give people the freedom to learn, experiment and grow in a supportive environment, thus taking an organisation from a place where people just come in to do their daily job, to a place where everyone, regardless of their level, can drive change for the business.

It’s important organisations don’t simply talk about authentic leadership, but put it into action. HR departments have a key role to play in driving and supporting this. For example, at CA Technologies I manage the learning function and diversity and inclusion activities – called Thrive. Thrive is linked to CA’s belief that regardless of characteristics, everyone has the ability to thrive. Key senior leaders champion different areas of Thrive and we provide employees with tools that help them follow and participate in the Thrive agenda, ensuring that authenticity in leadership underpins all of our activities.

If done right, authentic leadership can help organisations have a happy, diverse and engaged workforce and also have a real impact on business performance. But to demonstrate authentic leadership, organisations must put more effort into creating an environment that lets employees be themselves. The key is to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Sue Henley is senior HR director at CA Technologies