authentic leadership

What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership is a type of management style in which people act in a real, genuine and sincere way that is true to who they are as individuals. Proponents of authentic leadership say this type of leader is best positioned to inspire trust, loyalty and strong performance from employees.

The belief that leaders who are authentic produce good -- and sometimes the best -- results is a longstanding idea that has been documented as part of modern management studies for at least two decades. However, this leadership philosophy has not always been identified specifically using the term authentic leadership, as its roots trace back thousands of years.

History of authentic leadership

Authentic leadership has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, which examined the development of cardinal virtues such as prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude in a leader.

However, authentic leadership came to the forefront of management studies in the past few decades with the publication of several research papers, articles and books.

One of the best-known books on the topic is the 2003 book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value by former Medtronic CEO and chairman Bill George. The book catapulted the authentic leadership management style into widespread acceptance, including among many CEOs. It urged the new generation of 21st-century leaders to lead with their hearts, as well as their minds, and with passion and an ethical code.

The 2003 research paper "Authentic Leadership: A Positive Developmental Approach" by management professors Fred Luthans and Bruce J. Avolio was also an important milestone in the evolution of this leadership theory.

The interest in, and promotion of, authentic leadership gained popularity in the years following these works.

Principles of authentic leadership

Proponents of authentic leadership, including George, list a number of key attributes that define an authentic leader. Those attributes include typical soft skills such as being genuine, accountability and compassion.

Leadership theorists say an authentic leader rejects the idea that they must adopt a persona different from their own. Authentic leaders also don't believe their professional self is different from their personal or private self. Instead, authentic leaders are self-aware and know their strengths and weaknesses.

Other characteristics of authentic leaders include the following:

  • They are focused on delivering results, particularly in the long term.
  • They are driven by the organization's mission and needs, and not their own ego.
  • They have integrity and are guided by morals, while also displaying strong ethical traits.
  • They are disciplined and committed to their own improvement and growth.
  • They possess a healthy amount of emotional intelligence and are empathetic to others' needs.

Measures of authentic leadership

Proponents of authentic leadership say these characteristics not only inspire trust and loyalty in employees, but when taken together, they give leaders the ability to influence others and contribute to an organization's success.

Assessments such as the Authentic Leadership Inventory and the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire exist to help individuals and organizations measure these traits. Authentic leadership development courses are also available.

Challenges to authentic leadership theory

Some leadership and management experts have pushed back on the promotion of authentic leadership and the value that proponents believe it brings to the work environment.

Critics claim that authentic leadership can promote rigidity in individuals who think that being true and genuine excuses them from evolving their ideas following new challenges, experiences and insights.

Some have also said authentic leadership's belief in presenting one's true self, and not a persona, can prevent someone from being an effective leader. For example, they contend that sometimes, those in leadership positions need to adapt to the expectations and cultural norms of their workplaces, employees and audiences.

This was last updated in August 2023

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