As organisations confront an uncertain and changing future, they need leaders willing to embrace who they are and that are comfortable recognising they don’t have all the answers. In short, they need to be authentic. Bain’s recently released report The Firm of the Future outlines the challenges to the existing paradigm that has underpinned business for the past 50 years.

These changes place increasing pressure on leaders, who are already operating in an environment of increasing complexity and business disruption. Leaders need to be able to adapt and respond to this shifting environment. Doing that requires a greater level of self-awareness and acceptance of their strengths and limitations.

Leaders leverage their strengths

For years, research has shown the benefits accrued when leaders play to their strengths. 2010 research by Linley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillett and Biswas-Diener found that people who used their strengths to achieve goals were far more likely to reach them. In doing this, they were also happier and more satisfied with the result.

However, when people think of strengths they often consider a person’s technical skills. And yet, it is a leader’s self-awareness – an understanding of who they are and what they stand for – that can unlock their leadership success.

Authenticity is key

Self-awareness is the pre-cursor to authentic leadership, and it is that style of leadership that can help organisations thrive into the future. Research shows that when a person stops being their authentic self it causes psychological distress, which can have ongoing emotional and physical ramifications.

Maryam Kouchaki, from Kellogg School, Francesca Gino of Harvard and Adam Galinsky of Columbia found that being inauthentic comes at a cost as it makes us feel immoral. Kouchaki said: “We shouldn’t overlook the psychological distress that comes with inauthentic behaviour.” Being inauthentic also impacts how people perceive and relate to the leader.

For example, colleagues and team-mates will see when a person shifts and changes their behaviour and ideas. They’ll notice the disconnect between what the leader says and what they do. This breeds distrust – placing the leader’s credibility and integrity in doubt. Once that happens it becomes far harder for them to build a coalition of support for ideas and projects they are leading.

In contrast, when a person is authentic and stands behind their values, has a clear personal brand, and behaves consistently, it is far easier for people to connect with them and build a long-lasting relationship.

Accepting the unknowns

Authentic leaders recognise their limitations and accept they don’t have all the answers. They understand that a by-product of operating in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world is that there are many unknowns. It is these unknowns that make it more critical than ever to seek advice, collaborate effectively and create a culture where it’s OK to challenge and ask questions.

When people don’t feel safe to speak up and out, issues go underground and facts get distorted. The voice of the silent minority gets squashed. Ideas or opinions that need to be heard, remain unheard.

Authentic leaders encourage different ideas, diverse opinions and questions being asked. It was the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who said: “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”