The 5 Pillars of Authentic Leadership

It’s difficult to lead well, especially in a fast-paced environment. Leading change in a company in distress means many things have to happen quickly. That usually means culture is put on the back burner as a “nice to have.” As a serial CEO, I’ve led six companies through transformational change throughout 20 years, and I’ve found that authentic leadership—and the culture that results—is a multiplier of productivity and a driver of success.

Related: 5 Things Strong Leaders Do

The fast-paced, dynamic world of rapid change that used to be confined to distressed organizations is now everyone’s world. We are in a marketplace changing at digital speed. With so much disruption, new generations and a hyper-connected world where information is a commodity, the leadership paradigm has to shift. The industrial revolution model of command and control leadership is no longer effective.

To enable an organization to thrive today, leaders have to embrace an authentic leadership style. It promotes an engaged, flexible and innovative environment, one able to match the pace of change we now face. Here are my five pillars of authentic leadership.

1. Collaboration

You can’t do it yourself. Everything is moving too fast to have one smart person making all of the calls. Organizations need to be inherently agile with collaboration and communication in their very DNA.

Transparency builds trust; if you are connected to your team and genuinely interested in their participation and welfare, they will join you in your quest. The reason is simple: People own what they help create.

Lao Tzu said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, they will say: We did it ourselves.” That, to me, is the true measure of effective collaboration.

2. Vision

American philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “The leader has to be practical and a realist, yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist.” Therein lies the balance. Vision and strategy can be built collaboratively, and authentic leaders can help define that reality. But then the leader must live the paradox of championing the future, and yet engage in the purposeful motivation and practical realities of the present.

3. Empathy

We are all flawed human beings; we all have our bad days. Leaders, who recognize that he or she is leading normal people, and not just managing for an outcome, will engender a huge amount of loyalty, engagement and productivity. Treating others as we would like to be treated is a universal principal that’s worked for more 2,000 years. If you can create a culture of respect and dignity, a culture of trust rather than fear, your organization will accomplish great things.

We might all have different roles, but we all have equal value and should be honored and treated accordingly.

Related: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

4. Groundedness

Truly authentic leaders have to be centered and balanced if they are to be effective and resilient. They often have something in their lives that allows them to take a broader perspective, often putting the company and its people ahead of their own desires.

We need to be mindful to care for ourselves so we can effectively serve others, as that is the true measure of sincere, authentic leadership. We are composed of body, soul and spirit. Each leader will need to tend to their own foundational well-being in order to be sustainable in the cauldron of the modern workplace. The simple personal disciplines of life are even more important when you lead others.

5. Ethical

If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing. You can’t buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.” American businessman Henry Kravis’ words sound a bit harsh and even judgmental, yet we know it to be true.

Dispassionately choosing your moral framework sounds like an odd business success driver. Very few choose to go off the path to corruption or excess; it is usually an incremental slide. Making a stand early might save you, and others, from disaster. Integrity is often not convenient, yet it is a more sustainable and ultimately more fulfilling path. Often, it’s as simple as doing what you say you will do.

These seemingly soft characteristics are at the core of what I have found to be successful in multiple complex turnaround situations. The pace of change today means all organizations have to embed flex and ensure they are agile to survive and ultimately thrive in the Digital Era.

Related: 10 Qualities of Masterful Leaders


Mark Bilton is an international award-winning strategist, CEO mentor and managing director of Thought Patrol. He has more than 20 years of CEO experience, leading six companies through transformational change. Mark is on a mission to “reframe leadership and humanize the workplace.” He is a member of YPO, the premier chief executive leadership organization in the world.

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