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Authentic leadership in the New Normal - How to unlock the potential of authentic leadership

Aktualisiert: 24. Feb. 2022

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak,” she said. “I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” (Jacinda Ardern)

Authentic leadership: mindset and results

It is definitely impressive to see how Jacinda Ardern has led in huge crisis since her election as NZ´s prime minister in 2017. How she has faced these challenges is reflected in the quote above. It caught my attention because it not only presents a totally new type of political leader, it can also easily be linked to the need for new leadership in the business world - a new Normal.


Coming from an international HR leadership and organizational development perspective, I experienced how deeply ingrained a specific understanding of leadership quality is in our business world and probably in our Western world in general. A picture which still emphasizes on strength, expertise, confidence, success, assertiveness and „healthy“ competition. As a consequence, (future) leaders are afraid - or have even unlearned - to show other qualities like kindness, cooperation, courage, vulnerability and empathy. There seems to be the invisible rule that emotions are still not allowed in a business leadership context or a sign of weakness.


This quite fix and old definition of „leadership“ causes downsides on an individual as well on an organizational level. On an individual level, it could cost much energy: energy for trying to adapt and fitting in like a puzzle piece or even experiencing glas ceilings if they do not fulfill the accepted norm picture. I met leaders who focussed so much on adapting and still performing on their job, that they lost track of their own feelings and opinions. I remember a manager who was so surprised and was emotionally nearly losing his footing during our Development Center because he was asked to bring his own leadership understanding to the table. He was shocked because he was clueless and had no answers in place because he never allowed himself to develop an individual understanding. So this example shows the huge effort on an individual level. Therefore, this old approach will not create authentic leaders who can bring their full potential to work or either are good in self-care.


On an organizational level, especially the recent economic challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that a leadership principle of know-it-all is outdated in this complex, highly connected and volatile world. A continuous learner’s mindset is needed, especially in leadership roles, which focuses on gathering information and exchanging ideas rather than prejudging based on past experiences.

Therefore, solutions to existential economic threats can only be developed by a diverse group of talents. Talents with different personalities who are invited to speak up and therefore are bringing in a full range of perspectives based on different functional backgrounds and different ways of thinking and working. If diversity is not welcomed and supported a big strategic lever for outperformance and innovation is not taken into account on organizational level (see Josh Berlin: https://www.talentlyft.com/en/blog/article/325/diversity-and-inclusion-a-guide-for-hr-professionals). One new diversity initiative in 2020 in Germany which is bundling the power of many diversity partners is „The Shift Initiative“ from the Handelsblatt Media Group (https://www.handelsblatt.com/adv/shift-initiative/)


The stated negative consequences of the limited leadership understanding demonstrate that the old role model is outdated and not successful any longer. Consequently, we need to consciously redefine our leadership understanding and create a business environment where an authentic and collaborative leadership style is fostered and appreciated.

So here are five impulses for organizations and individuals to reflect on and to raise awareness to change mindsets, behaviors, team and company principles to rebuild the way we think about leadership:


1. Reduce unconscious biases

Everyone of us has blind spots with regards to interpreting and judging other behaviors. This is human but especially in key HR processes, like hiring, developing and promoting future leaders it is crucial to interrupt biases. So, acting fact-based and making conscious decisions is needed to overcome a restricting traditional leadership role model.

One tendency which is perpetuating a homogenous leadership group and it’s leadership habits is the „similar-to-me effect“. This means that interviewer can tend to decide for subjective experienced similarities between the person and themselves. Hence, awareness trainings on observer and perception errors as well as diverse decision boards are essential. Further day-to-day practical advices how to advance the important leadership skill of being a good „bias interrupter“ can be found here: https://biasinterrupters.org

On an organizational level, it could be a really effective dialogue in internal leadership development discussions to reflect on common biases:

  • Is there a group-wide „unhealthy“ or „outdated“ bias towards a specific leadership understanding and how does this influence the organizational ecosystem?

  • How does this understanding consciously needs to be transformed into a future-oriented one which attracts diverse external and internal talents?


2. Realize that assertiveness and empathy are two sides of the same coin

Jacinda Ardern´s quote demonstrates that we tend to think in „Either or“ rather than „And“ perspectives with regards to leadership qualities. This causes the risk of labelling people and not seeing their full personality range in selection and career development processes.

In the first step, it is important to establish a joint understanding of these interpersonal skills. Being assertive is directly in the middle of being aggressive and passive. So assertive leaders show healthy confidence and stand up for their beliefs, opinions and feelings while still respecting the rights and opinions of others. It isn’t overruling others. Empathy means being aware and being able to understand the needs, feelings and thinking of others. It doesn’t mean that you agree with their opinion.

Rather than the „Either or“ assumption, assertiveness and empathy, have the same roots. The core is respect - respect for realizing and acknowledging the differences in the way we perceive the world, and using this understanding to show respect for the opinion of others as well as providing value to our own standpoint, feelings and thinking. Both types of respects are needed to demonstrate successful leadership behavior.

Both qualities are about achieving results in the right way. And in both cases, it is easy to imagine the shadow sides of these qualities, overdone behaviors which are no longer a strength but a barrier in organizational life. My point is to be sensitive when these kinds of leadership qualities are evaluated or just commented because individual belief systems have a powerful impact.

  • So what are concrete behavioral expectations towards an assertive or empathetic leader?

  • Which specific behavior is triggering counterparts that a (future) leader may come across as bully on one hand or submissive and conflict-avoiding on the other hand?

Research shows that triggering points are different based on gender, nationality, education level and other human differences. Double standards and stereotypes play out whenever diverse people come together (https://hbr-org.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/hbr.org/amp/2019/11/how-the-best-bosses-interrupt-bias-on-their-teams).

3. Reflect on real leadership behavior

Many communicated organizational leadership models already balance nicely different aspects of leadership competencies and demonstrate a modern and holistic leadership understanding. So often the vision of what great leadership means is already there. The more interesting hint is a reality check.

  • Are the leadership competencies also appreciated in the same way in real business life?

  • How are the defined leadership qualities represented in the behavior on a middle and senior management level?

  • What are the key strengths of emerging talents who are successfully climbing the career ladder?

These kind of questions are good indicators for valued leadership behavior and how much walk the talk is happening in real life. Based on our ingrained traditional understanding of leadership it is likely that common leadership qualities, e.g. assertiveness or strategic thinking, are rated much higher than „new“ leadership qualities, e.g. cooperation or empathy. So a much bigger tolerance towards developing an assertive talent who „still needs to learn how to interact with others“ seems reasonable rather than the other way round.


4. Create a new leadership ecosystem

Closely linked to the previous point is the question of how deeply embedded the expected leadership competencies are in the overall employee life cycle - from hiring, to feedback, to promotion as well as compensation and benefit systems of the ecosystem. These systems shape business and leadership culture and vice versa.

Interdisciplinary cooperation skills are desperately needed to foster customer centricity and be economically successful as an overall organization. Although, promotions mostly still happen based on the principle of competition in silos.

There is this nice quote „You don’t have to blow out someone else's light for your light to shine“. So if mindsets and behaviors of destructive or even dysfunctional competition within the company would no longer be nourished the creation of a new leadership understanding is possible.

As a consequence, a We-thinking and team focus need to be strengthen and valued in all leadership processes. E.g. in target setting and performance rating the „HOW“ of target achievement is crucial to support sustainable success.

  • Who are the right people who can evaluate realistically job performance? (Probably not only the line management)

  • How about joint team targets for leaders across silos? (Although individual leadership target ratings in many companies show „complete fulfilled“ or „even exceeded“, not many companies derives a positive impact on the overall company goals.)

  • How about performance ratings from external and internal clients, peers, employees?

  • How can we expect cross-functional collaboration on leadership level when the compensation system just focuses on individual achievement and competition?

New ideas how to unlock the potential in the field of C&B can be found here:

https://www.new-pay.org/2020/02/05/new-pay-bringing-more-fairness-to-salary-issues


At the end, it is as simple as that: an organization is like an ecosystem where leaders and future leaders are socialized in a specific way. It should be a conscious decision which leadership style and behavior is mostly needed looking at the business challenges ahead and therefore should be nourished today in the different interactions, day-by-day and consequently.


5. Develop your unique authentic leadership style

Every person has unique drivers and talents. That’s why a deeper understanding into who we are and why we do what we do is a crucial first step as a (future) leader. So the outside change of creating an authentic leadership style starts with an inner change and the principle of being true to oneself to be able to bring the full individual potential to work.

I met over 300 leaders from different cultural backgrounds. Many of them gave the feedback how privileged it feels to be seen with their own personality as an individual human being and to be supported on their own development journey. They shared how much clarity they gained while receiving constructive feedback, opening up with peers and developing their own internal compass on leadership.

Although the feedback gave me a lot of energy, at same time it showed me how rarely these talented group of people felt in the same way in their everyday business. This needs to change!

From my perspective, the task of an organization is to offer the right conditions to create psychological safety, a supportive leadership culture and development offerings to foster this individual self-awareness journey.

Leadership starts with self-leadership competence. If you haven’t seen it, this is a big recommendation to watch the inspirational TED talk from Dr. Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability. In her book „Dare to lead“ she is linking her research to a new leadership understanding.


So I can only conclude with the words from Jacinda Ardern on human, authentic leadership:

„And I think, if there’s anything that people need right now, is they just need to see human beings doing their best as leaders. And that means that from time to time you’ll stumble, and you should be honest about that; it means that people will see your failings and we should be honest about that too. People need authenticity, not, I think, some manufactured idea of what political leadership is meant to be.“


Business Coaching can be a powerful source to reflect on individual or team belief systems and behaviors on leadership. To be able to create opposites if needed and to practice new ways of thinking. If you are interested, please reach out: www.steinhilber-coaching.de


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