Authentic leadership: one of the best things you can do for your business

By Grete Kvernland-Berg


As a leader, you set the tone for everything that happens in your business. And it’s getting harder and harder for organisations to hide behind values that sound nice but don’t translate into action. A new generation of clued-up consumers are increasingly looking at what companies really stand for – extending through to viral social media campaigns that target organisations for espousing platitudes rather than concrete purpose.

Providing an excellent product or service is always going to be crucial. But doing that at the expense of the bigger picture – sustainability, social inclusion, diversity – isn’t enough for the long-term.

Our report on leadership shows that powerful leadership means living up to purpose – even when it gets tough. We found that it’s worse to have an inauthentic purpose than no purpose at all. More than two thirds of leaders (71%) told us that their purpose creates a unifying sense of optimism and creativity. Leading with purpose means setting the course and being willing to follow it. Here’s how to do it:

Show up as yourself – with your own VOICE

The new way to lead is based on a level of openness and honesty – showing up as yourself at work gives others permission to do the same. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the process. For the first time, many leaders had to rally their people while working remotely, in doing so revealing more of who they are than in the past.

Being authentic means being consistent – in the big decisions, and in the details too. That could be anything from dialling back the corporate jargon to including stories – not just data – to inspire in your communications. This can be done with a focus on five dimensions in every leader’s team: Valued, Open, Independent, Connected and Empowered.

This VOICE model calls for a greater level of vulnerability. Admitting if something’s gone wrong and letting people know what you’ll do to put it right. Showing others that it’s okay to be human and to make mistakes. This kind of courage sets the scene for healthier, more innovative organisations.

Understand your own purpose

The more you understand what drives you, the easier it is to connect with and inspire others. Your own mission doesn’t have to be an exact match for the organisation you lead, but ideally it’ll run in parallel in some important ways.

If you’re not fully committed, people will see it. Author and speaker Simon Sinek helpfully points out the difference between high energy and high charisma: energy excites, but charisma inspires. And charisma comes from believing in what you’re doing. There’s no shortcut or presentation skills hack to this: you’ve got to get clear on what matters to you.

We worked with Ørsted, Denmark’s largest energy provider, as they shifted towards producing all their energy from renewable resources. This change required a shift in purpose, so we helped create and foster a connection to the new purpose by organising people into an agile operating model. Ørsted’s new teams could rapidly innovate as they were able to clearly see how their work contributed to achieving this new purpose.

Take brave decisions, not just the easy ones

There are times when it’s easy to be authentic: when mission and profits are aligned, it’s a no-brainer to make good choices. But what do you do when it gets tough? Are you willing to lose out on opportunities if they’re not the right fit? Are you set up to invest for the long-term good, not just the short-term gains? And are you willing to ensure you don’t compromise your purpose and values for financial gain?

Haglöfs, the Scandinavian outdoor brand, demonstrates how to live this purpose – not just speak to it. They openly announced they were “cheating” at achieving carbon neutrality by investing in offsetting. The company admitted “that although offsetting is the best option for the climate right now, it should never get in the way of the real work of reducing [our] own emissions”. And on Black Friday – a day when many retailers offer discounts as a way of kickstarting the Christmas shopping season - Haglöfs discourages unnecessary consumption by increasing its prices and giving all profits to charities. It’s now rebranded the day as Green Friday, offering customers second-hand collections instead.

These are the kind of positive actions that inspire and connect.

About the authors

Grete Kvernland-Berg Country head and government expert

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