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Authentic leadership – creating trust and driving motivation

Authentic leaders are shaped by their experiences – both positive and negative and have the ability to create positive team environment where mistakes are seen as part of the learning journey. They recognise and appreciate the impact of their mistakes and take ownership of their failures, without shifting the blame, which in return sets the right example for their teams. Employees remember the outcomes, not the words and they need to be confident that their leaders support the organisations’ mission and vision and cares about how these directly affect them on an individual level. A mismatch between beliefs and action can result in declining team morale, motivation and productivity.

Creating a transparent culture

Transparency and honesty need to be displayed by the senior leadership team, so that the rest of the team can follow. When Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford joined the business, the company was forecasting to lose 17 billion that year. During this time, he implemented a system in which each of the leaders needed to produce colour coded charts after each meeting – green for success, red for failure. However, even during the most challenging times, every chart remained green and made him recognise that the culture at Ford was one in which leaders didn’t openly admit to mistakes and problems and instead avoided transparency as they feared for their jobs.

One day, when one of the leaders handed over a chart with red marks on it, he clapped. His reaction signified that honesty should be rewarded and that failure is an opportunity for growth, not a reason for fear. After all, if leaders were not prepared to fail, they were not prepared to learn. The following weeks saw a gradual shift in chart colours and were the first steps for creating a more transparent culture.

High performing teams treat problems and mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for outcomes. This not only results in creating an environment where people can express their ideas and thoughts without social retribution, but this environment is also one of psychological safety.

Taking ownership

A recent Harvard Business School research suggests that leaders who admit failures on their path to success can win over their colleagues and make them more authentic and approachable. Learning about leadership mistakes also helps other team members to be motivated to improve their own performance. By displaying both strengths and weaknesses in front of their teams, leaders are better equipped to build trust and an environment, where employees feel comfortable to admit to their mistakes.

When people feel ownership for what they are doing, they go beyond their day-to-day job responsibilities and instead they bring innovation and ideas to work. Innovation can come from anyone within the organisation and when leaders encourage others to take calculated risks, ownership increases. Successful organisations and leaders encourage radical transparency and don’t hide behind closed doors or avoid open communication. Leaders who find ways to link individual aspirations with organisational goals are the ones who can maximise their team’s talent and skills and make them feel recognised and rewarded for their individual contributions.

At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering learning solutions that help leaders and their teams to drive success, focused on practical tools to help solve real life challenges. In most cases we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off the shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. To find out more, please contact Simon at

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