A Recipe for Authentic Leadership to Boost Innovation
by Guillaume Alvarez

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The new CEO of a global consulting firm wanted to connect with his people, share his vision and communicate a desired culture. With the best of intentions, he sent out a monthly newsletter. After a while, he discovered 90 percent of people never opened it.

In the age of information, words, which leaders so often rely upon to lead, lack impact. Large organizations are struggling to grow, racing to disrupt before being disrupted and eagerly seeking new ideas, yet, they are often rudderless when it comes to communicating direction and empowering people. This is lending to the erosion of trust — exactly what’s needed to encourage the risk-taking required for innovation.


A lack of trust is evidenced by how little loyalty employees have to their organizations. PwC characterizes the current state of millennials, who will make up three-quarters of the global workforce by 2025, as “loyalty-lite.”

  • More than 25 percent expect to have six employers or more
  • 38 percent currently employed say they are actively looking for a new role
  • Only 18 percent expect to stay with an employer long-term


To improve profit margins, many large organizations have a cost-cutting approach. Job cuts, the elimination of pensions and the rise of automation has led to worker angst and an increasing lack of trust in corporations. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports trust is in crisis around the world and CEO credibility has dropped to an all-time low.


At the same time, engagement issues continue to plague companies. The Steelcase Global Report: Engagement and the Global Workplace surveyed people in 20 countries. It’s findings backup research from organizations like Gallup — more than one-third of workers are disengaged and another third are neither harming nor helping drive their companies forward. Organizations can no longer cost-cut to growth. Today’s complex, wicked problems require engaged people empowered to collaborate, create and innovate.


Leaders in organizations need a new approach — embrace a more authentic style to rebuild trust, foster higher levels of engagement and empower people. Iconic executives with legions of followers do so with words, behaviors and symbols — all working together to deliver a consistent message.

Bill George, Harvard Business School professor and author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, likes to tell the story of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. Schultz grew up dodging bill collectors after his father lost his job. Decades later, Starbucks became the first American company to offer healthcare to everyone who worked there including part-timers.

“An authentic leader is someone who is genuine and true to what they believe in,” George told HBR. “They have courage, compassion, empathy – qualities like that – and they build long-term connected relationships.”


Building trust, loyalty and connection requires thoughtful and intentional actions. Many of our traditional business structures create unintended barriers to authentic leadership. Leaders need to manage relationships spanning organizational and geographic boundaries — amplifying the need to be mobile. And they need to rapidly immerse themselves in a wide range of topics each day, which can lead to information overload and create significant challenges in reaching all levels of the organization.

Our research shows that while workstyles are shifting, the work environment is not. Most leaders still work in traditional, private offices. One leader told me an all-too-common story about how people had to walk through six doors to reach his office. It’s a clear disconnect between the words leaders use to describe their desired culture and the message their space is sending. What does an environment like that say about the company’s willingness to engage openly or promote equal participation?

To regain trust and loyalty and increase engagement, leaders must consider a more human-centered approach with a focus on authenticity and accessibility. Together with words and actions, the work environment can be important in enabling changes in behavior, which over time, creates culture.

Conversely, leaders like Virgin’s Richard Branson empower people to make decisions. He believes in promoting policies that treat people like “capable adults” — offering unlimited leave, integrated technology and promoting wellbeing in the workplace. “If standard work hours no longer apply, then why should standard working conditions?” he writes.


Branson is rarely caught in a tie. Other Silicon Valley CEO’s, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for one, subscribe to a similar view. They are consciously addressing power cues that may otherwise paint them as unapproachable and out-of-touch.

A title, an office and an executive assistant all contribute to an intimidating image. Leaders must help break down the barriers automatically put in place by the organization’s structure. Does your company encourage people to dress comfortably? Do leaders do this or just talk about it? Branson cuts off people’s ties. The message is clear: At work, we want you to be yourself.

The environment can send a strong signal as well. Limit physical separation by eliminating roadblocks between leadership and workers. How many floors does someone have to travel to reach you? How often are they likely to see leaders working, collaborating, thinking? How often do you think team members dared to casually approach executives; even in shared environments like the lobby or the cafeteria, if they know that leaders take such great care in isolating themselves?

Once in the same room, what signals are being sent? Consider a traditional conference room long table where everyone faces the meeting leader and a similar space with a right-angled desk that allows people to sit across from one another and work shoulder-to-shoulder. Which environment is more likely to encourage the free expression of ideas? Does anyone get a better chair or do all have access to the same comfort, look and quality? Is someone “presiding” the discussion or does everyone have equal access to technology and white boards?




Leaders can reconcile privacy and confidentiality with transparency and accessibility. Leaders protect their privacy on executive floors, which encourages others to protect them by keeping bad, and much-needed news at bay. By sheltering themselves, how can leaders truly gauge, reactions, and concerns? How can an executive feel the beat of the organization, its dreams, its worries and its emerging ideas?

Insert leadership spaces into the middle of the organization. By working on the same floor as everyone else, leaders are more likely to feel the pulse of the organization. Access to privacy and respite can be maintained by creating a variety of spaces people can use depending on need. Leaders should allow themselves, at times, to be “interrupted” during the day. These moments can be orchestrated through choices of where to work at specific moments of the day or by sending clues that interrupting is okay. The more the organization and its people discover how leaders work and behave, the more understanding and comfort will emerge, starting to create a culture of elevated trust.


Finally, as leaders, we should model authenticity. Eat in the cafe where everyone eats. Behave the same way everyone else behaves. Signal approachability by holding meetings in a social space such as a cafe or lounge. By being seen in a more relaxed environment, leaders distance themselves from formal signs of hierarchy and appear more human.

Innovation and idea generation requires team members to feel safe about experimenting, failures, fast learning and recoveries. Innovation is the result of interaction and collaboration between more people with unique skills and their leaders. A corporate culture fostering trust between team members asked to innovate and their leaders requires a visible shift in leadership behaviors.

Creating authentic experiences that will generate a positive evolution in beliefs will in turn encourage the shift towards adopting new behaviors more likely to open up new boundaries, ways of thinking and better business results. The Steelcase Global Report: Engagement and the Global Workplace has highlighted a clear correlation between people who are highly satisfied with their workplace and people who are highly engaged at work.


About the author:

Guillaume Alvarez has worked in 11 different countries, and is currently leading Steelcase in EMEA. He participates in multiple boards, including Bayern Design in Munich, The European Executive Council in Paris and the Drucker Society.


One comment

  1. A recipe for authentic leadership? I hope that you don’t really mean that. Either it’s authentic or it’s not. As Mary Parker Follett wrote many years ago: “Our task is not to ‘find’ causes to awaken our loyalty, but to live our life fully and loyalty issues….Loyalty to a collective will which we have not created…is slavery. We create the common will and feel the spiritual energy which flows into us from the purpose we have made, for the purpose which we seek.” In short, purpose and direction cannot be set top-down and sold transactionally via ‘buy-in’. They must emerge from a process in which all are involved. Authentic behaviour is not done for instrumental reasons (‘to boost innovation’) but because it is intrinsically valuable and the leader has no choice. We want leaders who are authentic by character and conviction, not calculation and choice. If anyone thinks you are following a recipe that’s fatal to the process. Always remembering, of course, as Marx (Groucho) once said, “Sincerity is the key to everything. Once you can fake that you have got it made.”

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