Authentic Leadership

In communications parlance, the word `authentic’ when attached to a company has a meaning that transcends the literal definition of the word. An authentic company does more than boast a brand and brand message that resonate genuineness. This is an organization that has bridged the gap sufficiently between its brand—what it says about itself—and its reputation—what outsiders say about it—to consider the two in alignment.

This is no easy feat, and the woman or man who must lead this enterprise takes on a special burden as its chief communicator to ensure that the company continues to live up in words and deeds to the many and varied expectations of its stakeholders. The CEO is the standard bearer for a company and ultimately the personification of a company’s authenticity.

“Being authentic can’t be faked, posed or manufactured,” says Dave Senay, president and CEO of FleishmanHillard. “The CEO must lead by becoming the chief culture officer, making authentic behavior as atmospherically accepted and rewarded as breathing.”

So what characteristics should the leader of an authentic company possess? Many will be the same attributes equated with a good leader of any effort: integrity, confidence, intelligence, compassion and courage. Any great leader needs these qualities. But for the leader of an authentic enterprise, there are certain additional qualities that take on disproportionate significance. Here we will discuss three:

Being a good listener becomes crucial to reconcile the sometimes-conflicting expectations of multiple stakeholders. While CEOs recognize all their stakeholders, many often do not acknowledge that all of them ultimately contribute to the reputation of a company. They focus on those influential owners of their stock assuming that if they can keep this group happy their job will be ensured. And for some leaders, that strategy works for a while, although it is doomed to failure over the long run.

“CEOs are caught in a vice today,” says Joseph Plummer, chief research officer at London-based Lepere Analytics and an adjunct professor of marketing at Columbia Business School in New York. “On one side, there are unrealistic expectations from Wall Street for mature organizations like McDonald’s to grow like upstart Chipotle, and on the other are demands from the greater society that companies always place profits second to good deeds. Where most CEOs tend to bend and sway along with these pressures, a leader working to keep his or her company authentic attempts to set the path and convince these stakeholders to follow.”

A recent study on authenticity from FleishmanHillard and Lepere Analytics shows that consumers care almost as much about the way a company acts in regard to its workers, the environment and the laws of various nations as they do about the quality and value of the product the company sells. So failing to listen to employees, regulators, communities and special interest groups can have repercussions with a company’s customer base.

“The CEO of an authentic enterprise must work these intangibles as hard core business factors,” says John Onoda, a communications specialist who worked for Charles Schwab, Visa, General Motors and Levi Strauss.

CEOs of authentic companies also must live with transparency and constant scrutiny. But it is not a question of avoiding the politically incorrect comment that flies in the face of what the company has been espousing, it is also about laying things out on the table so that the various stakeholders understand a company’s strategy.

“Every modern CEO must at some point confront the unavoidable realization that, over time, everything reveals itself,” Senay says. “There are no more secrets. We are all living our lives in the public square. What we say we are is immediately scrutinized by others who have experienced what we really are. So in a very real sense, our authentic selves will be revealed through our actions whether we like it or not.”

Finally, the CEO of an authentic company must be consistent. Talking the talk and walking the walk cannot be reserved for speeches to shareholders or television interviews. Even chatting it up at the country club can end up in a tweet.

To achieve consistency can sometime require more than just a little tweaking. Take General Electric. Thanks to the vision of Jeffrey Immelt and a significant investment in alternative energy, the company has moved from being seen as “one of the biggest enemies of the environment to one of its protectors,” Plummer says. G.E. has moved from a polluter of New York’s Hudson River to leading a massive operation to clean it up and from a company that shipped jobs to the lowest cost region to one building plants in the U.S.

“Management has to realize that authenticity is behavior centered,” Plummer says. “As CEO, you want your company to be seen as an integral part of making the system and the community work.”