Contemporary Thinking On Authentic Leadership & Trust

What is Reality?

One of the few attractions of the current spate of TV reality shows is that, after a while, the characters forget that the cameras are rolling, stop “acting” and start being real. In leadership terms that’s what being “authentic” is all about. We can develop our leadership behaviours, but then it’s about practice to the point where they are completely internalised and natural.

When the cameras are rolling at work, what kind of things are people looking for in an authentic leader?

  • Do their words always match their actions?
  • Do they always have their peoples’ best interests at heart rather than their own?
  • Does their style change from supportive to combative in challenging situations?
  • Do people always feel that they can have “safe” conversations with them?

We all know people and organisations that we trust or distrust. These feelings always affect our behaviour towards them, yet in many instances over time these feelings change one way or the other. Leaders need to know where they are in this loop and then work out a way to move things on, even when the lack of trust relates to the organisation rather than themselves. Here is a short story that might help:

“Write Three Envelopes”

Once upon a time a manager was appointed to take over a department from a manager who was leaving in disgrace because he was no longer trusted to deliver on his commitments. In the reception as the incoming manager approached the lift he was greeted by his predecessor:

“If you get any problems, look in the top drawer of the desk. You will find three envelopes. Open the first”

The incoming manager was surprised but did note that there were three envelopes, neatly labelled in the order they had to be opened. He thought nothing more about it until, after a series of tricky team situations, he was brought to task by the Board for failing to engage his team. He went back to the drawer and opened the first envelope:

“This is the message of the first envelope. You’re obviously in trouble but don’t worry – it was all your predecessor’s fault – blame me”

All was well at the next Board meeting and everyone joined in rubbishing the previous manager, but over the next three months things went from bad to worse. The manager thought again of the envelopes and opened the second:

“Don’t worry. The message of the second envelope is to blame the current economic situation. Nobody could have done better... you know how it is”.

At the latest Board meeting the manager was able to gather sympathy and soon everyone was blaming everyone else, and even global warming, the government, Brexit and U.S Trade policy!

Life got worse for our manager and after six months he was summoned to the Board again, and again he went to the drawer, this time for the last envelope. The message now, in his time of need was: “Write three envelopes”


In the context of leadership – trust is based on “history” - the evidence of us doing what we say we will do. Sadly, as in this story, the current situation is not always of our own making, but an inheritance which is continuing to influence the prevailing culture. This in turn:

  • Colours judgements about who we are and what we might do in certain circumstances.
  • Impacts on other’s emotions – what they feel and think about
  • Influences whether others will take risks with us – which is essential to building trust.

So a key part of changing all that is for us to make the link between Authentic Leadership and Trust. Here are four questions that might help:

  • How do we want to be seen?
  • What do people see now?
  • Why is making a change important?
  • What new behaviours need to be adopted or adapted to make it happen?

At Wadenhoe, we have developed a free checklist to help with the thinking, planning and implementation of this approach. If you would like a copy, please contact me on: