What is authentic leadership?

Grappling with what it means to be an Authentic Leader is at the core of everything we do at Sheppard Moscow, and we ask ourselves daily what it means. We can talk about it in theoretical terms and talk about putting the individual at the centre of everything and the importance of communication in building trust. But it is not until that knowledge is put into practice that the real insight and learning comes.

We are witnessing one of the worst economic downturns in living memory and it is in these tough times that your leadership style is tested and your true colours come to the fore.

I've been a leader before, but in easy times. When I led before we needed to tweak things to get from good to excellent but we weren't in trouble.

Then the global recession hit and parts of our business got into difficulty. Our global clients were solid but our UK and European based clients were in big trouble. Budgets got cut, work stopped and change was about reducing costs and not about developing people and investing in organisational capability.

Some of our key clients in the most stricken industries stuck with the principle of investing in leaders for the future throughout the thick and thin. It was no surprise to us that they were the first to see light at the end of the tunnel, but this took real courage and focus from the leadership team.

Sheppard Moscow was not immune from this. The phone stopped ringing in the UK. We'd never really had to hunt for business for the most part of our 45 years existence the work had largely come to us. We were patient. We invested in our practice, supported and challenged ourselves, made tweaks and eventually had to make some really significant changes.

These tough times call for leaders at all levels of the business to step up and face the mounting challenges.

Having kept my head down for some years, I gradually felt; despite my preference, that I had to step forward. I didn't have a personal ambition to lead. I knew what I faced would be difficult, very hard work, somewhat relentless, somewhat thankless. I knew change was needed and I began to see a way forward that made that change and was true to our values. I had a sort of vision; at least for the first steps, though not the whole picture. I somehow found myself compelled to put myself forward to lead our business at a time of immense difficulty.

I ski. And one of the things you're taught when skiing through trees is absolutely NOT to look at the trees. You look for the white space. Because if you look at the trees your feet will follow your gaze and you'll crash. You look at the white space, that's where your body will head. 


That's what I did. Kept looking for the white space and not allowing myself to look side to side or be frightened by the number of huge, solid, scary trees rushing by on either side. One thing I was clear about was staying true to who I was. Not hiding behind the role. My white space was my (partial) vision. My trees were the pain, the heated difference of opinion that at times I caused for and in others. My challenge was to be neither deflected by that and to not ignore it. I held on to my vision and kept working at putting myself in the shoes of others so even where we disagreed or I was causing pain, people felt heard and understood by me. Staying as grounded as I could even whilst being in huge turmoil myself and of course doubting myself and my decisions.

So eighteen months ago we made big changes in Sheppard Moscow. We completely re-structured our organisation, and we re-defined who we are now. And business is looking great, our pipeline is incredibly healthy, we're winning work and our clients are expanding. Now when I am working with my clients; coaching a VP; running a global leadership programme for high potentials in a yurt in Mongolia or a factory site in Detroit, I don't talk about authentic relationship in theory. I talk about it form a deep experience and belief.

I see it time and again with our clients that true authentic leadership encourages deep employee engagement, resilience to face the future. But it is not easy.  It takes time and it takes big personal investment and a willingness put your full self in, but the rewards can be huge. Collaboration, engagement and true, authentic followership make massive differences to organisations, their ability to perform and the growth of the people within them.



14 Apr 2014


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