Authentic leadership / Olga Dzene’s article

Authentic leadership / Olga Dzene’s article

Irrespective of whether you have been recently promoted to the position of manager or whether you have had this status for a long time, you may find it difficult to accurately describe what it means to be a good manager or leader. A successful manager has many powerful qualities. However, most frequently we list such obvious characteristics as inspiring, confident and charismatic. But what does it mean to be an authentic leader?

The notion of authentic leadership is not a new concept though as its roots can be found in Ancient Greek philosophy, which maintained that authenticity is an important state of being. It allows one to control one's destiny, and in the works of Shakespeare too ("To thine own self be true," said Polonius in Hamlet), it is, without a doubt, one of the latest and most progressive leadership theories.

What is authentic leadership?

The term authentic leadership was used by Bill George in an accurately titled book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, which was published at a time when several noteworthy scandals had taken place in organizations like Enron and WorldCom. WorldCom was a Virginia-based American telecommunications company. In 2002, it was revealed that WorldCom had fictitiously increased its shares by almost 11 billion United States (USA) dollars, making this one of the biggest accounting scandals of all time. The Enron Corporation was a Houston, Texas-based US energy, commodities, and services company. In 2001, in one of the greatest accounting scandals ever, it was revealed that the company had used gaps in its accounting to hide billion-dollar debts, while at the same time increasing the company's earnings.

These corporate crimes created great indignation within society, bringing about a powerful desire for the types of leaders in business, who people could trust. Unfortunately, nothing cardinal has changed, and similar situations tend to recur.

In Handbook of Positive Psychology (2002), Susan Harter’s definition indicates that authenticity requires people's thoughts and feelings to be consistent with their activities. Authentic leadership is a style where managers act sincerely, conscientiously and transparently, in accordance with how they are as individuals. An authentic leader is able to promote loyalty and trust in their employees, consistently showing who they are as a personality and how they feel about the performance of their employees.  

Research shows that authentic leadership is the most important predicter of an employee’s satisfaction with their work and their feeling of happiness at work. It is considered that: if authenticity is promoted among organizational managers, employee productivity increases by 20%, team communication becomes more open, and employee involvement and motivation increases, as team members feel that they can safely express, and successfully resolve, their concerns. Overall, this encourages a healthy, psychologically secure company culture and actually creates a positive image for the organization and its brand in the market.

Authentic leadership has four main components:

  • self-awareness;
  • balanced processing;
  • relational transparency;
  • a strong moral code.


According to Daniel Goleman, author of emotional intelligence theory, self-awareness is made-up of three main elements, namely:

  • emotional awareness which is knowing and understanding one's emotions;
  • accurate self-evaluation, which is a knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • self-confidence, which is an understanding of one’s own worth.

Authentic leaders assess their weak and strong points and their values, so that they can be genuine and honest with their team members. Practicing self-awareness also includes self-reflection, requesting feedback and finding out how employees feel.

Balanced thinking

Authentic leaders look at things with a calm and consistent approach, balancing all information that they have at hand before acting. In making decisions, these leaders are ready to doubt themselves and to admit that other people are right. This is exactly why they take other people's perspectives and views into account – both those which conform with their view and the contradictory ones as well.

After making a decision, they discuss how they came to this conclusion with the team, explaining the facts and logic. This type of thinking by a leader encourages employees to safely share their opinions and experience, helps in avoiding possible conflicts and finding the best solutions.  

Relationship transparency

Authentic leaders are ready to be direct and transparent in their relationships at the workplace, as well as honest in sharing their ideas and feelings. This can encompass offering constructive critical feedback to team members, as well as honestly admitting if they themselves have made a mistake. In this way, an authentic leader creates an example and encourages transparency in their team and organization.

Let's take a look at an example from the Ford company’s history of the promotion of transparent relationships. Namely, when former Ford president and managing director Alan Mulally began working at this company, he introduced a system in which company managers created colour-coded diagrams at every meeting: green to denote achievements and red to denote failures.

At that time, it was predicted that Ford would lose 17 billion US dollars in that particular year. However, at the meeting Mulally noticed that all of the diagrams were green. He understood that the Ford organization’s culture was such that managers tried to hide problems, fearing for their security. When a manager presented a diagram in red due to production problems, Mullaly began to applaud. His reaction meant that a failure could be considered a captivating opportunity for growth and that honesty must always be rewarded. In the following week he saw diagrams which fluctuated between green, yellow and red.

Internal moral perspective

Authentic leaders place a company’s needs higher than their own, based on a powerful internal code of values. They use their values as a reference system to regulate their attitude, behaviour and actions within the company.

These ethical foundations, which are resistant to influence, assist in observing ethical principles even when situations or circumstances arise that invite them to act against the company’s interests. Organizational achievements are the main aim of the authentic leader, even if this means that the leader could be faced with additional challenges and work.

An authentic leader’s conduct and qualities

Authentic leaders have several important qualities and typical conduct:

  • self-awareness – an authentic leader considers all of their actions and decisions and checks their strengths and weaknesses without prejudices. They put in a lot of effort to overcome their fears and utilize their strengths to the maximum degree;
  • focus on long-term results – an authentic leader does not waste valuable time worrying needlessly about short-term failures or decreased results in the previous quarter. Their attention is always on the long-term. They know that patience and hard work requires time, but provides great results in the long-term;
  • integrity – strength of character is important for authentic leaders. They don't say what they don't think and earn respect due to this quality. People trust this leader because they keep their word regardless of what this may require of them;
  • vision and meaning – an authentic leader manages with a view to the future and an understanding of the work’s meaning. They always add value to the people with whom they are interacting, and help them to achieve higher professional goals, which also facilitates a better quality of personal life. They challenge themselves and others to raise the bar and try to achieve excellence;
  • listening skills – an authentic leader is always a good listener even if someone else’s view is contrary to theirs. In reality, they are even prepared to evaluate these ideas with an open mind and change their own position if the arguments are well-based and make sense;
  • transparency – an authentic leader believes in open communication and combines their directness with empathy, which ensures progress. Their public image does not differ markedly from what they are truly like in their private life. They do not hide their mistakes and weaknesses and have the courage to be genuine;
  • consistency – they are consistent and observe their principles. An authentic leader’s behaviour is predictable and they cannot be easily influenced;
  • share achievements with the team – this differentiates the authentic leader from other managers. They not only create a good team but also provide recognition when someone deserves it, and share in achievements and success with the whole team;
  • utilize experience – there is no better teacher than one's own life, and an authentic leader learns from their life experience. Their outstanding leadership skills develop slowly from real life experience and life stories.

Martin Luther King, who was once the leader of the Afro-American civil rights movement, was a great example of authentic leadership. King’s passion was to achieve equality among all people in the USA - this provided his life with meaning. His compassion, ethics and inspiring rhetoric led one of the most powerful civil rights movements in US history.  

King’s actions displayed all the characteristics which make up an authentic leader and brought together millions of people to create lasting changes in society. His self-confidence, courage (he placed himself at risk and in danger many times in his brief life) and passion inspired others to be fearless. Even though Martin Luther King was imprisoned thirty times, he did not change his position and values and attempted to achieve his goals despite the obstacles.

A comparison of transformative and authentic leadership

Transformative and authentic leadership have a certain conceptual overlap, and authentic leadership is often characterized as a direction in transformative leadership.

The definition of transformative leadership is where a leader serves as an example and demonstrates strong ethical behaviour. It is considered that authentic leaders also act as examples, showing their followers their true self and demonstrating ethical behaviour in accordance with their values. In addition, both leaders put their followers in first place and create relationships that are supportive and full of trust, as both transformative, as well as authentic leaders, care for the development of their followers, listen to their views and create trusting relationships with them.

However, there are differences between both types of leadership. Authentic leaders indirectly influence their followers, are transparent when dealing with problems, are attentive to their followers’ views and values and are an example to them. Whereas, transformative leaders influence their followers, displaying character, providing a powerful and inspirational vision and intellectually stimulating ideas, and focusing attention on what their followers need, to achieve.  

Even though the initial transformative leadership theories indicated that leaders display ethical behaviour, in more recent times it is considered that transformative leaders do not always have to act ethically, and they can be manipulative if they consider that this will provide for the greater good. However, trust and the observation of moral values, independently of the situation, is the main component of authentic leadership.

There are also specific components of authentic leadership, which are particularly characteristic of solely this approach. Firstly, self-awareness is at the basis of authentic leadership. Authentic leaders know their pluses and minuses and act in accordance with their internal values, irrespective of the situation. Secondly, authentic leaders are ready to consider the views of their followers, as well as their basic values, which is why they have a high level of self-control. Thirdly, authentic leaders care for the development of their followers, but in a different way than transformative leaders. Transformative leaders wish to develop their followers into leaders, while authentic leaders encourage authenticity among their followers instead.

Why be authentic?

Organizations have to be authentic, in their essence, to ensure long-term happiness and the voluntary investment of employees. In turn, managers have to learn to be authentic and must undertake to continually think and develop, while supporting their team to do this as well.

Authenticity develops when one finds one’s own individual style in leadership, as well as when making life decisions which powerfully reflect ethics, values and personality. Authenticity is a trait that can be developed, although it is not easy to acquire. Becoming an authentic leader is a journey, not a destination. It requires a continuous commitment to reflect, analyse and to develop oneself in this process.

Olga Dzene - leadership development expert, consultant, presenter and coach

Republished from iBizness

Other articles by Olga Dzene can be found here in the section Associated articles.