Business Transformation

Final Installment: Thought Leader’s on Authenticity

Since the publication of my most recent book, Indispensable: Build and Lead A Company Can’t Live Without, last month, I have had the marvelous opportunity to discuss several of the key questions covered in the book with several fellow thought leaders.

This 5-part article series captures the essence of those discussions. Each piece is organized around one unique and important question. Along with mine, each article delivers perspectives from two other leadership luminaries.

For this article, I invited Amii Barnard-Bahn, a former Fortune Global 50 exec and an executive coach, strategic advisor and keynote speaker, and Andrea Simon, a corporate anthropologist and author of the book, Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, to tackle this key question with me:

 “How important is authenticity in setting direction and leading change within an organization?”

Here is our thinking on the subject:

Amii: When a leader is authentic, it means they are genuine, accurate, reliable. You can count on authentic leaders to walk their talk and to be honest…. especially when it hurts. This is why authenticity is a critical personal characteristic for leaders who aspire to spark change within their organization. Change is hard enough; by most counts, change requires a 10x force factor to counteract “the way things are.”

Andrea: I agree. As I teach in my Leadership Academy, to be an effective leader requires authenticity along with technical ability and focus. It is how you express your empathy. People have to trust their leaders. They set the direction and are responsible for ensuring the organization achieves it goals.  To lead change requires  far less command and control leadership and much more empowerment, collaboration and communication. People are looking for direction and recognition. Change is painful. Leaders must reduce the pain and create an environment that allows their followers to embrace the changes.

Jim: As I write in my latest book, it’s essential for leaders to ignore much of what the leadership gurus have to say, many just complicate matters with jargon and fluff. Leadership boils down to defining a goal and navigating the path to achieve it. Therefore, if you want your business to become indispensable, you have to be ready to set that direction and manage all of the changes needed to get there. It is as simple as that!

Amii: Yes it can be that simple. I would add that a leader’s vision, reasons for the change, benefits to be gained, and sacrifices are shared in an honest, direct way that inspires trust. When leaders are inauthentic, employees and teams often waste countless hours guessing at the hidden reasons for change, search for ulterior motives, jockey politically, and fail to function effectively as a team. Authenticity is built over time, through multiple experiences of commitments combined with follow-through and credibility.

Andrea: Great point, Amii! Let’s approach the point backwards. How does an organization change with a leader who lacks authenticity? What might you observe?

Organizations that are floundering, failing to hit their goals, toxic in their interpersonal relations, often have inauthentic leaders that worry about themselves far more than they are concerned about others. For example, these leaders often:

  • Fail to follow through on their own directives
  • Waffle back and forth on what their people should be doing to implement new ideas
  • Deliver poor service and products that lack quality, despite verbal commitments to the contrary

In contrast, authentic leaders have that intangible ability to listen more carefully, enjoy celebrating their staff more than themselves, and invest in building the entire organization. It is a “we” mentality rather than a self-focused “I” one.

Jim: Right!  Would you follow someone who is disingenuous? I wouldn’t!

Steven Jobs was seen as brash and conceited. But his people adored working for him. They knew that they were always going to get Steve being Steve. It was reliable and true.

So be you. You being you should be enough to inspire others to follow your lead.

On the other hand, leaders who are honest, talk straight, are present with their people and are decisive are leaders that others, not only follow, but also, are leaders that others aspire to become.

Amii: Yes and leaders need to recognize that organizations, and employees, naturally resist change — especially when it’s forced on them. Effective change leaders understand this natural resistance, and strategically plan for it. If viewed as authentic by the organization, leaders can rapidly accelerate change and more easily gain followers because employees trust what the leader says.

Jim: Definitely, I couldn’t agree more!

In closing this five-part article series, I hope that you have come to realize that I’m not one for hyperbole. Rather, I like to think that I keep it real. So, it is in keeping with that spirit, that I offer this final bit of advice:

“Just keep it real.”

In other words, strive to be an authentic leader.

If you missed any, please be sure to check-out the other articles in this series. I explore several critical questions with other great thought leaders like Amii and Andrea.


James Kerr‘s “Thought leadership” column series at the CEOWORLD magazine.
1. Do You Want A Thought Leader’s Perspective on Leadership?.
2. Thought Leadership Series Part II: Perspectives on Vision.
3. On Culture: A Thought Leader’s Perspective.
4. Trust: Part IV of Thought Leader’s Perspective Series.
5. Final Installment: Thought Leader’s on Authenticity.


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James Kerr
James M. Kerr, founder at Indispensable Consulting, is a long-time management consultant, vision maker and leadership coach. For nearly 30 years, he has helped his clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed. His latest book, Indispensable: Build and Lead A Company Customers Can’t Live Without is his 6th business title. Kerr is an expert in leadership, strategy, organizational design and cultural transformation. James Kerr is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.