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The Road to Authentic Leadership

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

Chinwe Esimai, Managing Director, Chief Anti-Bribery and Corruption Officer, Citigroup, Inc., gave the MHI Fall Leadership seminar that inaugurated our 2016-2017 mentoring year. Her topic was “Women and Authentic Leadership in a Globalized World.” While the advice to “be true to yourself” has been repeated so often that it has almost become a cliché, Chinwe gave it bones and muscle with her account of first-person experiences in the highly competitive environment of global finance. Her talk was filled with sound and practical advice about keeping your balance and maintaining a values-based approach to your career. She has kindly shared her lecture notes, which are reproduced in abbreviated form below. 

According to a report on Women in the Workplace published in The Wall Street Journal on September 27, 2016, women still face significant challenges in the workplace in terms of balancing priorities outside of work, access to opportunities and promotions, and inequality in pay. 

While Chinwe believes it is helpful to be aware of these challenges, she would rather focus on the solutions, and authentic leadership can help serve as one of the proposed answers to the challenges women face in the workplace.

Chinwe noted that often when people speak of leadership, they speak about the expressions, applications, or manifestations of it, such as having a vision, being a person of influence, having vast responsibilities, building a team, being strategic, being courageous, or pursuing justice.

These don’t, in her view, necessarily get to the core of leadership. Leadership starts with each individual. At its very foundation, leadership is the ability to understand and utilize your innate talentsWith that as the foundational definition of leadership, she believes authenticity in leadership is vitally important.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the five defining characteristics of authentic leadership are: Clarity about one’s values, priorities, and preferences (including virtues, such as justice, integrity, and loyalty); Willingness to work toward aligning one’s values and behaviors (authentic leaders work towards growing core values in themselves and also bringing those behaviors to the workplace); Acceptance of the necessity for choices and trade-offs (including daily choices in balancing one’s responsibilities outside the workplace, as well as leaving the workplace in the short or long term, in order to focus on family needs); High degree of comfort and satisfaction with decisions made earlier in life; and Sense of self-determination (including the ability to make career decisions, big and small).

As Chief Anti-Bribery & Corruption Officer at Citi, Chinwe oversees Citi’s global anti-bribery program, which develops and maintains a framework for adherence to anti-bribery regulations set out by the US, UK, and countries around the world where the bank does business. Beyond adhering to legal and regulatory requirements, it is about doing business ethically, building and maintaining an ethical culture, embedding that culture in systems and processes, and giving employees the tools to mitigate potential bribery risk.

Chinwe truly enjoys anti-bribery work. Growing up in Nigeria, she began thinking and speaking about bribery for as long as she remembers, long before she had the opportunity to focus on it professionally. She’s passionate about her work because it has meaning to her, and more broadly, it has a positive impact on how communities and countries around the world do business. 

The six lessons in authentic leadership Chinwe shared are: (1) Tune in; (2) Follow what interests you; (3) Embrace each work experience as a learning opportunity; (3) Be intentional about building relationships within and outside your organization; (4) Whenever you have an opportunity to do something outside your comfort zone, take it; and (5) Have a voice; speak up.


“The human being is single, unique, and unrepeatable, someone thought of and chosen from eternity, someone called and identified by name.” Pope John Paul II

We are acutely aware that we live in a globalized world, from the prevalence of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Google—to the increased globalization of our economies. Today’s workplace can encompass remote work or work from home, conference calls, and online meetings. The world is getting smaller. Positive aspects of this include increased avenues for communication and easy access to information. Yet, in some cases, there are fewer in-person interactions. As a culture, we can get distracted by non-stop flow of communication. This often creates anxiety, stress, and a sense of being overwhelmed. 

Awareness of the continual flow of communication leads us to a simple conclusion—the busier you are, the more important it is to take quiet time to tune inwards. For each person, it’ll look different, based on schedules and responsibilities, but such time should be both sacred and non-negotiable.

If you’re not spending quiet time each day, it’s very difficult to know what your unique expression in the world should be. 


People may find discussions about finding one’s passion to be too difficult, even too weighty, so it helps to focus on interest. In her career, Chinwe followed her interests by spending time studying anti-bribery developments, and being open to continually learning, reading and speaking about anti-bribery developments before she formally worked in the area, and telling mentors and colleagues that she was interested in anti-bribery work. She sensed that it was an area in which she could add value because she found it fascinating. 


While each role should be evaluated from the perspective of how well it taps into your unique skills and talents, be willing to view your career as a journey. Each job has its role in the journey and teaches valuable lessons.

For example, at one point in her career at another company, Chinwe was asked to help cover non-routine options and derivatives inquiries. As an attorney, she had had very little formal training about the stock market and trading, let alone complex products such as options and derivatives. She sat through ten interviews in which each interviewer was convinced that she could master it. 

When she took on the role, she completed a number of courses that were offered on options, derivatives, and hedging—the same courses the traders themselves were required to take. She also sat on the trading desk with the traders to build relationships and learn more about what they did day-to-day.

Her experience handling inquiries has led to a deeper understanding of these matters, and supported her experience in other compliance risk management roles, skills she utilizes till this day.


Focus on the quality of relationships, and have a preference of quality over quantity. When possible, meet colleagues in person or have a phone conversation. People appreciate being heard, so whenever possible, bridge the gaps in time and space.

Take advantage of formal mentoring programs within your organization, but also seek out informal networking opportunities. She values diversity in mentors (as it can be enriching and complementary), and recommends having a broad range of mentors, where each person plays a different role. A trait she often appreciates in mentors is directness, particularly when they provide frank advice, while respecting that she is ultimately responsible for her career.

The key is to allow such relationships to develop organically, and seek to maintain them over time, even when one changes roles or organizations. Mentors can be invaluable in helping to navigate change. They understand organizational dynamics that one may not have access to early in the career journey. 


Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly. — Barbara Haines Hewlett

Chinwe shared a story about a time in her career when she had the opportunity to take on larger responsibilities, but feared that she was not ready. One of her longtime mentors, who had observed her career for a number of years, told her he knew she was ready for it, and would, in fact, excel in the role. He offered the following advice: “What you don’t know, you will figure out.” 

While to some, this may seem like common sense advice, it led to one of the most important mindset shifts in her career. She was previously convinced that if a role required ten competencies, she needed to have all ten, or eleven and a half, if possible. She soon learned about the 2008 Hewlett Packard study, confirmed by other research, which revealed that on average, women only apply for a job if they meet 100% of the criteria. Men tend to apply if they meet 60% of the criteria. 

Roles outside our comfort zones help us grow, learn, and tap into yet unexplored innate talents. If we remain true to who we are (including our values, priorities, and preferences), such roles also enable us to serve those around us in a more impactful way.


Practice speaking up often; you only get better with practice. It is not unusual to believe that we should only speak up when we have the most brilliant idea. What a daunting proposition, if every idea we share must be profound or world changing. Speak up to clarify understanding, confirm agreement, summarize expectations, ask questions, or just to be a part of the conversation.

Refine your communication skills. Communicate with confidence. Programs such as Toastmasters can help you gain experience. The TED Talk by Amy Cuddy, entitled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” is also a terrific discussion on body language and communicating with confidence.

Unique and unrepeatable: standing firmly in your authenticity, know that there is no one else in the world that can bring to your interactions the same thoughts, experiences, and insights you bring. Don’t ask for permission; know that your voice is needed.

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