Authentic leadership refers to a type of leader who is of high integrity, transparency, and honesty. The term is often credited as being introduced by Henderson and Hoy (1983), but was significantly popularized by Bill George in his 2003 book “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value.”
George emphasized the importance of leaders being true to themselves, transparent, and ethical, and he argued that authentic leadership is essential for creating long-term value in organizations.
Authentic leadership Definition
Of all the leadership models we’ve looked at on this website, authentic leadership has been the hardest to define. It appears slippery, and personally, I’m not really a fan of the term “authentic” in academic contexts (this applies to my critique of the concept of authentic assessment as well).
Caza and Jackson (2011) point out that a longstanding definition of authenticity is “knowing one’s true self and acting in accord with that true self.” From my perspective, the term points toward integrity.
Henderson and Hoy (1983) defined authentic leadership by comparing it to inauthentic leaders:
“Leadership inauthenticity is defined as the extent to which subordinates perceive their leader to be ‘passing the buck’ and blaming others and circumstances for errors and outcomes; to be manipulative of subordinates; and to be demonstrating a salience of role over self.”
However, when I look to their definition of authentic leaders, it rings of jargon:
“…subordinates perceive their [authentic] leader to demonstrate the acceptance of organizational and personal responsibility for actions, outcomes, and mistakes; to be non-manipulating of subordinates; and to exhibit salience of self over role.”
If you think the concept “salience of self” is in any way clear language, do let me know in the comments. Personally, the phrase feels very ‘ivory tower’.
Another definition comes from Gardner et al.’s (2011) literature review on the topic. They list out a range of definitions of the topic, and in their conclusion, present something of a definition of their own:
“…truly authentic leaders must lead, but they must do so in a way that honors their core values, beliefs, strengths — and weaknesses […] people in organizations can effectively lead, and follow, in a way that enables them to express their own unique identity and style.”
Authentic leadership Examples
1. Staying True to your Core Values
Most of the literature on authentic leadership makes reference to the idea of knowing your core values (for example, see: Oh et al., 2018). The idea here is that authenticity means knowing yourself. What do you stand for? What are your morals and ethics?
Such a stance can serve you well in leadership. Decision-making needs to be made through an ethical lens, after all, in order for the organization and team to remain on stable footing into the future. Unethical decisions, on the other hand, will often lead you down a path where quality is compromised, values are undermined, and eventually, your mistakes may come back to bite you in the form of PR nightmares.
2. Unique Identity and Style
Authenticity also points us down the path of trying to embody what we see as our true selves (Shaw, 2010). In other words leaders be who they feel is the best version of themselves, not the version they think ‘looks the part’.
The early silicon valley tech CEOs, perhaps, took this idea to heart. From Steve Jobs and his turtle-necks to Mark Zuckerberg and his white no-collar tees, their dress was about being themselves, not the suit-and-tie version of the CEO that was standard up until the early 2000s. (Nevertheless, this countercultural dress code may have come full circle, being the ‘it’ thing rather than people embracing their authentic selves).
Of course, unique identity isn’t just a reflection of style. It’s also a reflection of practice – embracing your true identity in your leadership style, interactions, and decision-making, as well (Novicevic et al., 2006).
3. Takes Personal Responsibility
Most of the literature I read on authentic leadership while researching for this article highlighted the importance of personal responsibility as a key aspect of authenticity.
Hoy and Henderson (1983), early and influential theorists on the topic, regularly pointed out the importance of personal responsibility for the authentic leader. This leader doesn’t “pass the buck” or blame the system. They take ownership over tasks, processes, and take responsibility for the things they take ownership over.
4. Takes Responsibility for the Team
Similarly, responsibility needs to be taken for the team that the leader is organizing and supporting (Novicevic et al., 2006). The leader is made responsible for the team, their processes, and their outputs. As such, if KPIs are not met or failures occur, the leader owns them as the person who is the head of the team.
Imagine, for example, a team where the leader is constantly taking praise for successes and blaming their team members for failures. Such a leader is seen to lack authenticity because they’re fake – they are taking ownership for successes they may not fully have been part of, and passing-on blame for failures they, too, were a part of (Gardner et al., 2011).
There’s a need, in other words, for the leader to be able to facilitate team successes, and take ownership over that role as facilitator.
5. Takes Responsibility for the Organization
The third responsibility of leaders, especially high-up in an organizational hierarchy, is to the organization itself (Novicevic et al., 2006). This, as much of the literature indicates, is perhaps the most difficult. Oftentimes, the organization’s values can clash with the leader’s values. Inauthenticity occurs, then, when the leader is acting on behalf of an organization in ways that clash with their own value set.
Novicevic (2006) highlight the importance of resolving this potential conflict and, ultimately, feeling morally comfortable with their and their company’s shared values: “leaders are responsible when they manage to resolve successfully the moral tensions within and the moral conflict between personal and organizational codes of conduct.”
6. Understanding your Purpose
Understanding your own purpose is a key aspect of authentic leadership (Craig, George & Snook, 2015). These leaders do not lead for the sake of leading or power, but because they have a deep sense of why they’re heading the ship and where it needs to go.
This can be seen in the contrast between the leader who’s there to ‘climb the ladder’ and the one who has a true interest in their role as a leader.
An authentic leader has a firm grasp of their vision and mission and they can articulate this clearly to their team and inspire them towards the common goal (Craig, George & Snook, 2015).
Their purpose isn’t self-serving; instead, it’s tied to the progress of their team, the betterment of their organization, and often transcends into the larger societal good.
7. Ethical Decision-Making
An authentic leader is committed to ethical decision-making. They are determined to do what is right, even when it might be the harder choice or not bode well short-term (Hannah, Avolio & Walumbwa, 2011).
This involves careful evaluation of decisions, anticipating their implications, and considering how they align with personal, organizational, and shareholder values (Hannah, Avolio & Walumbwa, 2011; May et al., 2003). These leaders utilize transparency, honesty, and fairness as guiding principles when faced with difficult decisions, ensuring decisions are taken not just for the well-being of the business, but also considering the impact on people and the environment.
Ethical decision-making instills trust, respect, and a strong ethical culture in the organization, as others follow by example.
8. Reflective and Self-Awareness
Self-awareness and the capacity to reflect on one’s actions and decisions are fundamental traits outlined in the authentic leadership literature (Avolio & Wernsing, 2008).
These leaders continuously engage in self-examination, admitting mistakes, learning from them, and looking for ways to improve. They value feedback and use it constructively to cultivate their leadership style and enhance their effectiveness (Brewer & Devnew, L2022).
They are able to recognize their emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and how their actions impact those around them. This prevalence for reflection and self-awareness not only facilitates personal growth but fosters a learning culture within the team and the organization.
Authentic leaders are comfortable in their own skin and refuse to wear masks or play roles just to fit into preconceived notions of what a leader should be.
Their strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and values are all transparent. They don’t feel the pressure to be ‘perfect’ and are not afraid to show vulnerability (Oh et al., 2018).
Their genuine, approachable, and non-pretentious manner often creates an atmosphere of openness and mutual trust among team members, thus fostering a safe place where ideas, opinions, and constructive criticism are freely expressed.
10. Acknowledges Limitations
Acknowledging limitations is central to authenticity. These leaders acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and are not averse to seeking help when needed (Novicevic et al., 2006).
They appreciate the skills and expertise of their team and lean on them for advice and solutions in areas that may not be their forte.
This acceptance of limitations breeds humility, fosters team cohesion and input, and further solidifies trust within the team. It also encourages others to be comfortable with their limitations while continuously striving for personal and professional development.
11. Secure Self-Esteem
Authentic leaders possess a secure sense of self-esteem. While open to feedback and even criticism, they do not hinge their worth or competence on external validation (Arda, Aslan & Alpkan, 2016).
They are confident in their skills and abilities, and this confidence is reflected in their leadership style. Their secure self-esteem acts as a buffer: they maintain their equilibrium when faced with pressure or negativity, and their response is measured, controlled, and respectful.
This security in self-esteem creates an atmosphere of stability and dependable leadership (Novicevic et al., 2006).
Authentic leaders are open to other perspectives, innovative ideas, and novel ways of doing things. They appreciate diversity in thought and are always on a quest for learning and growing.
These types of leaders have the capability to listen actively, validate others’ viewpoints, and incorporate useful feedback without any bias. This open-minded approach fosters a culture of creativity, innovation, and inclusivity in the team, driving the team and organization forward.
Benefits of Authentic Leadership
Three of the more compelling benefits of authentic leadership that I’ve identified are:
- Positive culture: A wide range of studies have demonstrated that authentic leadership can foster a better workplace culture (Mazutis & Slawinski, 2008; Woolley, Caza, Levy, & Jackson, 2007).
- Greater productivity: According to Caza and Jackson (2011), “the most dramatic benefits” of authentic leadership are that authentic leaders themselves “exert greater effort” and “enjoy better work performance.” Similarly, Ilies et al. (2005) note that authentic leaders have higher motivation to work.
- Greater work satisfaction: Work satisfaction is believed to increase among people who practice authentic leadership (Avolio et al., 2004; Ilies et al., 2005).
For a more detailed outline of these and other benefits, I recommend: Caza and Jackson (2011) – see the section: ‘consequences of authentic leadership’.
Arda, O. A., Aslan, T., & Alpkan, L. (2016). Review of practical implications in authentic leadership studies. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 229, 246-252. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.07.135
Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. O., Luthans, F., & May, D. R. (2004). Unlocking the mask: a look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(6), 801–823. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.09.003
Avolio, B. J., & Wernsing, T. S. (2008). Practicing authentic leadership. Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people, 4, 147-165.
Brewer, K. L., & Devnew, L. E. (2022). Developing responsible, self-aware management: An authentic leadership development program case study. The International Journal of Management Education, 20(3), 100697. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijme.2022.100697
Caza, A. & Jackson, B. (2011). Authentic leadership. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson, & M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.) Sage Handbook of Leadership (pp.350-362). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Craig, N., George, B., & Snook, S. (2015). The discover your true north fieldbook: A personal guide to finding your authentic leadership. John Wiley & Sons.
Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The leadership quarterly, 22(6), 1120-1145. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.09.007
George, W. (2003). Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hannah, S. T., Avolio, B. J., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2011). Relationships between authentic leadership, moral courage, and ethical and pro-social behaviors. Business Ethics Quarterly, 21(4), 555-578.
Hoy, W. K., & Henderson, J. E. (1983). Principal authenticity, school climate, and pupil-control orientation. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 29, 123–130
Ilies, R., Morgeson, F. P., & Nahrgang, J. D. (2005). Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: Understanding leader–follower outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 373–394.
May, D. R., Chan, A. Y., Hodges, T. D., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organizational dynamics.
Mazutis, D. & Slawinski, N. (2008). Leading organizational learning through authentic dialogue. Management Learning, 39(4), 437–456.
Novicevic, M. M., Harvey, M. G., Ronald, M., & Brown-Radford, J. A. (2006). Authentic leadership: A historical perspective. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 13(1), 64-76.
Oh, J., Cho, D., & Lim, D. H. (2018). Authentic leadership and work engagement: the mediating effect of practicing core values. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 39(2), 276-290.
Shaw, J. (2010). Papering the cracks with discourse: The narrative identity of the authentic leader. Leadership, 6(1), 89–108.
Woolley, L., Caza, A., Levy, L., & Jackson, B. (2007). Three steps forward and one step back: exploring relationships between authentic leadership, psychological capital, and leadership impact. Proceedings of the Australia and New Zealand Academy of Management.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]