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Authentic leadership: Definition, examples and how to develop it

a woman raises her hand to show authentic leadership

There’s a lot of talk about leadership styles and which one is the “best.” But what if style isn’t nearly as important as being true to yourself and your values?

That’s the argument that proponents of authentic leadership make. Below, we’ll go over the characteristics of authentic leadership as well as some examples of it. But first, let’s figure out just what it is.

Table of contents

What is authentic leadership?

authentic leadership

It’s hard to pin down the roots of authentic leadership. In 2003, the term gained a lot of attention thanks to the publication of Bill George’s book of the same name, which he wrote in response to rampant corporate fraud such as the Enron scandal of 2001. He believed that instead of merely creating more laws to force corporations to behave, we need to encourage authentic leaders to take the reins and change corporate culture.

George, an American businessman and the former CEO of Medtronic, described authentic leaders as "people of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations" and "committed to stewardship of their assets and to making a difference in the lives of the people they serve."

Alternatively, in a 2004 paper, Bruce Avolio and colleagues defined authentic leaders as:

“Those individuals who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others as being aware of their own and others’ values/moral perspective, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and high on moral character.

In essence, authentic leadership is about being yourself and doing the right thing.

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

In his book Authentic Leadership, George outlines five dimensions of authentic leaders:

  1. Understanding their purpose
  2. Practicing solid values
  3. Leading with heart
  4. Establishing connected relationships
  5. Demonstrating self-discipline

We’ll go over each of those in detail below. In addition, we’ll review other characteristics of authentic leadership that can help you become the leader you were meant to be.

Authenticity

Of course, no surprise here, the heart of authentic leadership is authenticity—being true to yourself. George posits that, while there are many different leadership styles, it doesn’t matter which one you adopt. What matters is that you remain authentic, regardless of style.

“I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity,” writes George. “It's being yourself; being the person you were created to be."

Integrity

Integrity, having strong morals, is a foundational quality of authentic leadership. 

“While the development of fundamental values is crucial,” writes George, “integrity is the one value that is required in every authentic leader. Integrity is not just the absence of lying, but telling the whole truth, as painful as it may be.”

Just how crucial is it? A 2016 white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership reports that integrity was the number one contributing factor to top-level executives’ performance. It was also chosen as the most important leadership quality by 75% of the workers that Robert Half Management Resources surveyed.

Sense of Purpose

A strong sense of purpose guides every authentic leader. They know why they’re doing their job, and it’s not just for the pay, the benefits or the power. They are driven by a deeper meaning and seek to serve others and make the world a better place.

And a sense of purpose is good for businesses and their workers, too. In its 2016 Putting Purpose to Work report, PwC found that 79% of leaders surveyed think that “purpose is central to business success.” And research by Deloitte suggests a leadership practice that strongly affects employee engagement is to "develop and communicate a strong sense of purpose." They found that mission-driven companies have 40% higher levels of retention.

Values

Authentic leadership demands that you know your values, not just the values of the organization you serve. Most importantly, it requires that you stick to your values—particularly when times get tough.

George argues that the best way to know your values is to have them tested, even in small ways, to prepare you for when they are tested in big ways. He gives the example of a friend who stepped into a new role as president of his fraternity, only to be faced with a $6,000 deficit he hadn’t expected. The majority of his brothers wanted to take $6K from the funds they’d raised to donate to an orphanage. Under immense pressure, his friend chose not to follow the majority, and in doing so, proved that he was willing to stick to his values even under peer pressure.

Relationships

Establishing connected relationships is another dimension of authentic leadership that George identified. Showing your team that you care about each person as an individual, checking in with them, asking them how they’re doing and giving them personalized attention will go a long way in encouraging their loyalty to the job.

Compassion

The etymology of the word “compassion” speaks a lot to its true meaning. In Latin, “com” means “with” or “together,” and “pati” means “suffer.” A leader who has compassion doesn’t just feel sorry for someone; they truly act as though the pain their team member feels is their own pain.

For example, when a Medtronic colleague's son was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, George drove to the hospital to console him. While being compassionate does not require grand gestures, it does require authenticity (seeing a theme here?). Your followers will know when you truly care about them or when you’re just putting on a show.

Consistency/Self-discipline

In his book, George writes a lot about how an authentic leader must be consistent, not just in the results they achieve but in their moods and actions. Essentially, an authentic leader must have the self-discipline to develop and maintain good habits.

George himself took up daily meditation, regular exercise, sufficient sleep and a balanced diet to ensure he was able to provide consistent results and leadership to his team at Medtronic.

Stewardship

What does it mean to be a good steward? More than ownership or management, stewardship implies a special kind of caretaking of something that has been placed under your responsibility, whether that’s your team members or your company’s budget. An authentic leader demonstrates good stewardship by actions like fairly and wisely managing the budget for a project or ensuring their team members are well-rested and happy.

Self-awareness

Authentic leadership requires knowing yourself, including the blind spots that you need to focus on. As George writes in Authentic Leadership, “Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths.”

Self-awareness is a key component of emotional intelligence, too, another leadership quality that authentic leaders can benefit from.

Work-life balance

While this term has come under fire in recent years (with some saying there’s no such thing), George insisted that authentic leadership requires proper boundaries to separate work and personal life. 

In 2019, time-tracking software RescueTime analyzed 185 million working hours from its users and found that more than a quarter of that time was logged after hours. That means people were taking a big chunk of work home with them. And now, with remote work being the new normal, the lines between office and home are even more blurred.

How can authentic leaders help their followers strike a better work-life balance? By setting boundaries and setting an example. Many burned-out employees feel that way not because there is any written rule that they have to work after hours—but because it’s implicitly implied by their managers. If their managers send emails asking for things at 7 on a Friday night or stay late at the office, employees are going to think the same is expected of them.

As an authentic leader, your job is to show that you don’t just talk the talk; you walk the walk. If you want your followers to have a healthy work-life balance, you must demonstrate it to them.

What is an example of authentic leadership?

Sometimes it helps to see real-life examples, so below are three examples from both the private and public sectors.

Jason Y. Lee, Founder of Jubilee Media

Jubilee Media is a company that seeks to “create a movement of empathy for human good,” but founder Jason Y. Lee started on a very different path. After graduating from an Ivy League school, he immediately started earning six figures as a consultant, believing that success meant making a lot of money. 

Disillusioned with that job, he yearned to do work that was aligned with his values. That's why he founded the nonprofit the Jubilee Project, which later turned into a for-profit company that creates YouTube videos bringing people of vastly different opinions together to try to find common ground. 

“My biggest goal in life is not to amass as much money as possible but also support others and help open up ways for us to do more good,” Lee told CNBC Make It. “I feel like transparency and authenticity is something that we don't see that often from a lot of startups or founders or leaders. I know that I would have benefited so much from hearing about these conversations.”

Arne Sorenson, Former CEO of Marriott

In March 2020, as the world became gripped by the pandemic, then-CEO of Marriott Arne Sorenson announced that he would be cutting his salary to $0. Additionally, the hotel brand reduced the salaries of top executives by 50%. 

As the travel industry was slammed with economic losses and layoffs, these gestures were a great example of the compassion component of authentic leadership. Sorenson didn’t just offer his condolences to his followers; he got into the trenches with them and showed that he cared by getting rid of his own paycheck that year.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister 

Among the Covid pandemic government response, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands out as an authentic leader. The island country she governs managed to contain the virus exceptionally well. The government there moved swiftly to institute a strict lockdown early on that helped curb the spread of the virus, and its approach remained science-based and led by infectious disease experts. 

Additionally, Ardern demonstrated empathy throughout her leadership. In a style reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats (albeit much less formal), Ardern frequently conducted Facebook Lives from her cell phone while seated on her couch to update and soothe the people of New Zealand. In her very first one of the pandemic, she appeared onscreen in a sweatshirt after tucking her daughter in bed and offered words of encouragement to citizens before the lockdown began.

What are the four components of authentic leadership?

Over the years, many different researchers have attempted to distill authentic leadership into four components, so it depends on which one you consult. In 2008, Fred O. Walumbwa and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Management that outlined these four components of authentic leadership:

  1. Self-awareness: According to Walumbwa and colleagues, an authentic leader is self-aware, meaning they seek feedback to improve their interactions, and they can accurately describe how others perceive their own capabilities.
  2. Relational transparency: Relational transparency refers to whether the person says exactly what they mean and admits their own mistakes.
  3. Internalized moral perspective: Someone with an internalized moral perspective acts and makes decisions aligned with their beliefs.
  4. Balanced processing: An authentic leader possesses balanced processing, meaning they challenge their own opinions and weigh others’ perspectives against their own before drawing a conclusion.

The Authentic Leadership Self-Assessment Questionnaire scores recipients’ responses to statements related to each of the four components listed above. This score will help you understand your strengths and blind spots when it comes to authentic leadership.

Authentic leadership is within your reach

If authentic leadership is all about being yourself—then that’s great news because you are entirely capable of doing that. Maybe your company or your training has stuffed you into a mold under the erroneous belief that there is only one “right way” to lead. But you can unlearn those lessons and become more of the person you were meant to be. Your team will be all the better for it.

Need extra support as you learn authentic leadership? Our online coaching programs can help you develop the necessary skills.

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