The transformative power of ‘authentic leadership’

The transformative power of ‘authentic leadership’

By Paul Richmond, Managing Director

‘Authentic leadership’ is quite a buzzword in today’s evolving workplaces and as I realised in a recent conference, despite being at the top of your People agenda – many fee-earning staff have never heard of it. This leadership style emphasises transparency, collaboration, ethics and genuine human connection. Rather than top-down control, authentic leaders act with integrity, listen openly, and care deeply for their people.  Of course – I am sure you say you care deeply about your people but when client work comes first – every time, that can wear a bit thin and it’s likely you will have missed some people’s need for support at times. As business environments become more dynamic, authenticity fosters the levels of trust, engagement, and agility that modern firms need to thrive. In turn that makes your team more productive and raises retention.

Authentic leadership is a way of ‘being’ with other people that is best demonstrated when you are confident – in yourself and your ability to listen well and balance others’ needs.  I find it fascinating how, over the years, I have seen leaders in the firms we work with fail to integrate it into their leadership style and prefer instead the old-fashioned ‘command and control’ approach. Without a doubt, leaders who get it right make them more approachable and fundamentally someone whom people are more ready to follow. Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffet are good examples of authentic leaders, and their success as leaders has given birth to some of the biggest brands. These leaders demonstrate compelling reasons why you should embrace this leadership philosophy.

And PwC agrees as you may have read this series on human-centred leadership.

Demystifying authentic leadership: what does it really mean?

At its core, authentic leaders have a clear vision and purpose that aligns with their personal values, personality and sense of purpose. Rather than putting on a façade and ‘changing into superhero leader mode’, authentic leaders are genuine. They remain open to their emotions and vulnerabilities, comfortably revealing their compassion and humanity when appropriate.

Authentic leaders understand their firm’s “why” – its foundational mission and principles. Authentic leaders have a strong self-awareness – they know their innate strengths, limitations, and guiding principles. This self-knowledge allows them to lead with conviction and act with integrity.

In action, authentic leaders communicate openly, honestly, and transparently with their teams. They aim to serve their firms rather than self-interest. Role modelling ethical, caring behaviour builds credibility and trust across an organisation. Authentic leaders listen deeply to diverse voices, admit mistakes, accept criticism, make decisions that serve the firm and its clients – not self-interest, and receive feedback non-defensively. Rather than exert control, they distribute power, coach well and aim to empower others with a sense of shared purpose. Transparency, approachability and genuine concern for people underlie their leadership philosophy.

How do authentic leaders lead?

In law firms and accounting practices, authentic leaders manage promotions and leadership transitions with fairness and transparency. They understand that the firm belongs to all partners, not just senior leaders. These authentic leaders give voice to all levels in shaping the firm’s future. They balance both current partner interests and the firm’s long-term sustainability.

Authentic leaders also recognise that professionals perform at their peak when given autonomy, flexibility and work-life balance. They promote agile work policies that allow people space for family and personal priorities. Facetime in the office matters less than results to authentic leaders. They empower their teams with trust and accountability.

During stressful times or periods of transition, authentic leaders remain steadily present. They acknowledge uncertainty directly while providing reassurance, wisdom and decisive action. Their consistent values and integrity inspire others’ best efforts precisely when it counts most. Authentic leaders stay grounded even amidst the turmoil.

Integrating authenticity when delivering feedback for growth

Providing effective feedback is another area where authentic leadership makes a notable difference. Giving constructive feedback can be difficult, so leaders often avoid it or sugarcoat the messages. In contrast, an authentic leader might take this approach:

“I want to share some feedback so you can continue to excel in your role. Delivering constructive feedback is an area I struggle with sometimes because I want to be considerate. However, I know providing open, transparent feedback is important for your professional growth. I appreciate you being receptive, as I know I can also improve at delivering feedback effectively.”

This statement demonstrates vulnerability and models openness to feedback. The authentic leader positions the discussion as a partnership focused on the employee’s development rather than a top-down critique. This humanises the feedback process and sets the tone for a constructive, growth-oriented dialogue. The leader then provides specific guidance on the behaviours or skills the employee can focus on improving.

When leaders show authenticity by admitting their shortcomings, the team feel less threatened and more willing to acknowledge their own opportunities for growth. Skilfully blending transparency, insight, care, and high standards enable transformational feedback conversations.

The case for authentic leadership when attracting talent and clients

Given today’s shortage of talent, authenticity also enables professional services firms to attract top professionals. Both Millennial and Generation Z talent prioritise purpose, ethics and work-life balance when choosing employers. Authentic leadership focused on people appeals to both values-driven emerging talent and experienced hires looking for trustworthy leaders.

Client service also benefits from authenticity. Trust and relationship building are central to professional services. With transparent communication, flexibility and genuine care for their needs, authentic leaders build client loyalty for the long-term. Their emphasis goes beyond sales to delivering lasting value.

As law firms and accounting practices adapt to changing technologies, authentic leaders can guide this transformation. With their ability to balance tradition and innovation, they implement new systems and processes while retaining their firm’s core identity and strengths. Authentic leaders’ emphasis on transparency and input ensures professionals embrace, not resist, important shifts.

In an increasingly complex and competitive marketplace, authentic leadership empowers professional services firms to thrive. Authentic leaders stay true to ethics and people-centred values while adapting and driving change. Their emphasis on development, work-life balance and diversity models organisational health for clients and employees alike.

Both established and emerging firms need authentic leaders who put their people first. These leaders build trust by admitting limitations, listening to criticism and seeking continual improvement. They forgo status to roll up their sleeves next to their teams. Shared power, accountability and collective stewardship of the firm’s mission drive them.

Ultimately, authentic leaders in professional services create meaning while delivering in a results-driven industry. They remind their people and clients “why” they do this work – beyond profits or prestige. Amid the turmoil of today’s legal, accounting and consulting worlds, purpose-driven authenticity brings out the best effort, innovation and resilience from all. Professional services firms fulfilling their mission with transparency, ethics and humanity can transform from success to significance.

Interested in finding out more?

Here I address some interesting points about ‘authentic leadership’ that I share on video:

How can we help you?

Find out more about how we help you create ‘Authentic Leaders’ here and our management programmes here. Alternatively, email me here if you would like to learn more about how authentic leadership can benefit you and your firm.