Margarita Mayo is an award-winning professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IE Business School in Madrid and Visiting Professor at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. She is a Fulbright Alumni of Harvard University and has taught at some of the world’s leading business schools. Her work has appeared in leading journals – including the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Human Resource Management and Leadership Quarterly – and she has presented her research at international conferences worldwide.
Why is authenticity so important in leaders?
In the era of post-truth, we are experiencing a crisis of confidence in leadership. To rectify that, we need leaders who can earn and maintain our trust – and to do that, they must be authentic.
As I mention in the book, I’ve been reflecting on the role of leaders in business and society at large for two decades. In that time, I have been encouraged by the many stories I’ve heard from a variety of leaders, whether they are CEOs of multinationals, start-up founders, leaders of creative organizations or NGOs. The surprising thing is that some of the most authentic leaders are often people no one has heard of. Thus, one of my main motivations for writing Yours Truly was to bring these untold, yet extraordinary stories to centre-stage. I learned a great deal from them and hope others will too.
Today’s organizations are less formally structured than in the past, which means workers don’t necessarily trust someone just because they hold a senior position on the org chart. It takes more than a pay cheque these days to earn respect; people want to follow a boss whom they admire and find to be genuine. In Yours Truly, I explain how leaders are the glue holding our companies together. Once, leaders acquired trust based on formal position, but today they must rely on their authentic power. Authenticity is the currency of leadership.
What do you think is the biggest block to being authentic?
What prevents people from being authentic is fear.
We tend to think of leaders as people who are brimming with confidence. But this is not always the case – we are all human, after all. Some may not let themselves lead authentically because they are worried about what others think of them and thus conform to the prototype of effective leadership. They may prefer to lead in a traditional way and manage the company, for example, in the same manner as their predecessor. Leading authentically is challenging and inevitably brings about some internal conflict. It takes courage.
Leaders naturally worry about the bottom-line and how shareholders or investors will react. For example, they might not allow their personal views on social causes like work-life balance to blend with their management style – even though research has shown this positively affects the bottom line (e.g. sales growth) – because they are worried that some of their stakeholders might not hold the same view.
All in all, a leader’s fear of failure harms their chances to being authentic. As a result, they can´t admit errors, fake their leadership style and stay within traditional hierarchical structures. Being authentic requires humility, courage and generosity to overcome this fear.
You’ve lived and worked in lots of different countries – have you found there are cultural differences in achieving authenticity? For example, do some cultures lend themselves to authenticity more than others?
For example, more individualistic cultures like North America tend to think of leaders as superheroes. They over-glorify their leaders. Think about how movies portray leaders: they are most frequently individual heroes who save the rest of us from evil. These are not what I’d consider to be authentic leaders. In contrast, collectivistic cultures such as Japan have a more harmonious view of leadership. They are concerned, for example, not only about making the product but also about creating well-being for all stakeholders: customers, designers, employees and shareholders. In my view, these are excellent examples of authentic leaders.
Yet, although some cultures lend themselves to authenticity more than others, I have found that it is growing as a universal value. This is because, across cultures, it is the leader who helps people make sense of reality. They are important for what they represent in the minds of the people and I am seeing that – around the globe – people are craving leadership that is trustworthy, humble and collaborative.
And examples of authentic leadership can be found all over the world! For example, the CEO of PERI, a multinational German construction company, called for greater communication to overcome the challenges of rapid international growth by starting an identity campaign throughout the company. A stay-at-home mom in Colorado reinvented herself to become a top executive at Hewlett Packard and then a successful real estate entrepreneur after her husband had a tragic accident. And a Japanese fashion designer left Chanel and her hometown to start a fashion company in Ethiopia to produce leader bags following her ethical principles of slow fashion.
Why do you think authenticity is now becoming such a popular and important area of leadership?
The world has changed radically on multiple fronts: digital transformation, multigenerational workplaces, and gender equality, among others.
The digital transformation brings more complex projects that require collaboration and teamwork. One single person is unlikely to have all the knowledge. Success depends on diverse talent. Furthermore, it is the first time in humankind that younger generations know more about technology than the previous generation. Learning takes place in both directions across generations.
The emergence of collaborative environments, “reverse” mentoring and humanistic values demand authenticity in a way that it wasn’t needed before. Leaders who lack authenticity behave more out of obligation than passion – their style is unlikely to motivate this new workforce. Typically, they follow a fixed mind-set. When they are faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, they tend to rely on well-learned behavioral strategies and avoid experimentation.
In contrast, authentic leaders are humble; they have an unbiased view of themselves. They know themselves well – virtues and limitations – and seek the contributions of others. They use their strengths to solve new problems and are open to feedback. Their continuous learning mentality provides a much-needed long-term view for the success of the company. They truly care about meeting both their own and others’ interests to reach win-win solutions.
The theme of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2018 was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” I believe many of us looking to lead can find part of the solution to this new global context in authenticity. We need true leaders more than ever before.
Watch Margarita's Yours Truly Manifesto
Her book is available to buy from Bloomsbury Publishing