Authentic Leadership: How to Narrow the Gap Between Reputation and Intent

Explore how authentic leadership can narrow the gap between reputation and intent to foster a high-performing culture and drive business success.


During a recent coaching session with a Chief People Officer of a high growth technology organization, I listened to him express bafflement at his employees’ constant complaints about their perceived inequities in compensation and workload. What seemed like ingratitude was making him question his priority of creating a people-first culture. He had always believed that treating people first and foremost with respect and kindness set a critical foundation for developing a high performing culture, but he was starting to feel doubtful. While he wanted to focus on developing organizational culture to foster employee engagement, he was beginning to feel like it was negatively impacting the business’ bottom line.  How could he possibly be more empathic and thoughtful about listening to these complaints that seemed to disregard efforts made to create a great place to work? Would these employees ever be satisfied?

The CPO’s efforts were clearly not getting the intended results, and this was, of course, disappointing. Given the high value he placed on treating people well, the perception that he wasn’t treating people well felt like it had to come from somewhere else – perhaps the employees weren’t grateful of his efforts, perhaps they wanted too much, or perhaps his actions didn’t line up with his words as well as he thought they did.

To find a path forward that aligned with the CPO’s values and beliefs, we turned to answering a core question, “What is the gap between your reputation and intent?” Inconsistencies can happen if a leader’s behaviors do not align with their stated values or intentions, and this can lead to a sense of frustration or disappointment if the gap isn’t identified and closed. A key process is to gather feedback to pinpoint the behaviors that are causing the gap between intent and reputation. What do the employees see and perceive? What behaviors need to be shifted to close the gap?

Alignment of leadership behaviors and organizational values can bridge the gap between intent and reputation. Fred Kiel (2015) defined a leader’s character reputation as the opinion others form about their character, based on how they act – their micro-behaviors, or habitual responses to situations. Kiel tested over 300 micro-behaviors and identified 28 most associated with higher performance. Companies with “high character” leadership teams (strong ethical values) had five times higher return on assets than what he calls “self-interested” leadership teams. In so-called Virtuoso companies with high character, leaders have alignment among four essential character habits of leadership – integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion – and the leadership skills they use to create sustainable value for their organization. He found that when these character habits are not aligned with leadership behaviors, a gap in reputation and intent results – that is, the leader’s behavior is not landing as they intend.

The CPO’s effort to demonstrate “high character” leadership should have a positive impact on the bottom line, but only if leadership is being perceived through habits and actions that in fact demonstrate high character. The gap between the CPO’s intent and reputation became evident when comparing employee feedback with company practices. For example, while the CPO emphasized work-life balance, senior leaders in the company frequently sent messages at all hours of the night, creating pressure for employees to respond. Further, when the CPO requested honest feedback from an employee, he was told that his motivational speeches while inspiring, were viewed as aspirational rather than a true reflection of how the company functions. While he and the organization espouse the key values of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion, the employees began to relate that he and their company talk the talk but aren’t walking the walk. A culture of conflict avoidance negated the company’s key values, resulting in inconsistent accountability for deliverables and a lack of ownership for mistakes and failures. Essentially, we found a gap between the CPO’s leadership rhetoric and everyday behavior.

When the gap between one’s intent and reputation is large and goes unaddressed, there will be misperceptions. Your reputation in the eyes of others is reality. Only considering what you think others should see or know will get you nowhere; discovering what others actually see is key. Based on others’ feedback, practice new behaviors that are more closely aligned with your intent and the organization’s values. To build a high character reputation that is reflected in reality, communicate empathetically yet decisively, keep promises or re-negotiate commitments, own up to your mistakes and let go of others’, and empower teams through delegation and honest feedback. Not only will you be perceived as a virtuoso leader, you’ll bolster the bottom line.

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Susan Ko, PhD, Partner | Vantage Leadership Consulting

Susan Ko, PhD is a Partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting. Her distinctive coaching methodology focuses on the character and reputation of leaders, recognizing them as key differentiators in building teams that drive positive transformation and impact business ROI. Her goal is to foster increased awareness to adjust behaviors and habits in order to help leaders bridge the gap between reputation and intent.