Sarah K. White
Senior Writer

Authentic leadership: Building an organization that thrives

Jul 19, 2022
IT Leadership

Authentic leaders place their emphasis on people, values, and ethics, creating a culture of authenticity, transparency, and honesty that ensures all employees are empowered and heard.

leadership / discussion / teamwork / collaboration / communication
Credit: Pixelfit / Getty Images

Leadership styles have traditionally centered their focus on profits, share prices, and productivity, but a new approach increasingly taken up by today’s leaders, known as “authentic leadership,” takes a different spin on the concept. With the authentic leadership model, the focus is on people, values, and ethics first, with productivity and profits subsequently promoted by fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment where everyone feels heard.

Authentic leadership is a relatively new concept, and because of that, there isn’t an official definition of authentic leadership. But ultimately, authentic leadership can be viewed as the opposite of traditional leadership in many ways. For example, whereas traditional leadership emphasizes leading with goals, authentic leadership instead focuses on leading with purpose. Or whereas traditional leadership focuses on profitability and productivity, authentic leadership focuses on inclusivity, ethics, and morals.

Authentic leaders are those who demonstrate self-discipline and a strong moral code — they don’t take shortcuts or bend their morals to meet certain goals. There’s a pattern of behavior that defines authentic leadership and it’s one that trends toward transparency, self-discipline, self-awareness, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

The theory of authentic leadership was introduced formally by Bill George in his 2003 book Authentic Leadership. In this book, George presents his theory that the key to being a successful leader is to be yourself. He suggests that great leadership starts with authenticity, which then strengthens your ability to hone your other leadership skills.

According to Bill George, there five main characteristics that define authentic leadership:

  • Purpose and passion: An authentic leader should have a sense of purpose and know exactly who they are and what they are about. That purpose drives an authentic leader’s passion to understand people better, figure out how employees are best motivated, and demonstrate an interest and care for what they’re working on.
  • Values and behavior: Part of being an authentic leader means having a strong set of values and sticking to them in a consistent manner. Authentic leaders know their values and demonstrate those values regularly through their behavior. By acting in accordance with your values, you reinforce what type of leader you are and build trust with your employees.
  • Relationships and connectedness: Building relationships and having a real connection with others is an important characteristic of authentic leadership. It’s not just about networking; it’s about getting to know your coworkers and employees by listening to them, allowing them to share their experiences, and having open lines of communication.
  • Self-discipline and consistency: Having a strong sense of self-discipline is important for an authentic leader because you will need to stay focused on specific goals and maintain a consistent pace toward those goals. Authentic leaders need to be able to manage setbacks, failure, and stressful situations with a calm confidence. They aren’t deflated by failure or deterred by setbacks, instead working to find a solution to any problem that arises.
  • Compassion: A key element of authentic leadership is compassion, which shows you are sensitive to the needs of others and want to help everyone thrive and grow in the organization. That might mean checking in around deadlines, having flexibility with schedules, or finding ways to alleviate times of stress for employees. It’s important to show you have empathy for your employees and that you want them to feel comfortable speaking up if they need help or a break.

The value of authentic leadership

While authentic leadership is still a relatively new concept, research has backed up George’s claims, with several studies published on how authentic leadership can positively influence employee productivity, job performance, and overall employee engagement. Employees that are engaged, productive, and performing at their best boost the company’s overall success. And research shows that authentic leadership has a way of bringing out the best in employees by creating an environment where they feel empowered and supported.

Authentic leaders create a productive, effective, and motivated environment by being transparent, honest, admitting when they’re wrong, and being open to criticism or feedback when needed. They are leaders who can solve conflicts without being manipulative, function within a specific set of ethical values, and can display vulnerability when appropriate. Building this sense of trust with employees is critical to authentic leadership and it all must come from a genuine place.

Authentic leadership and inclusion

Authentic leadership is important for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, because employees need to feel safe at work and comfortable speaking up if they experience or witness a threatening situation or microaggression in the workplace. If employees feel they must stay silent about toxic behavior in the workplace, the consequences to the organization can be significant. This can lead to high turnover, low productivity, and low morale across the company.

Research from Dr. Cottrill, Associate Professor Lopez, and Dr. Hoffman from the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University found a “strong connection between authentic leadership and individual feelings of inclusion.” The research surveyed professionals and asked them to rate how inclusive they felt their organizations were and how they felt about themselves as employees. The survey looked at Organization Based Self Esteem (OBSE) ratings and Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). Employees with a high OSBE would describe themselves as “important, meaningful, effectual, and worthwhile” to the organization, and companies that have a high OCB rating display “altruism, conscientiousness, sportsmanship, courtesy, and civic virtue.”

The findings showed that employees who feel more included at work are more likely to rate higher levels of self-worth within the organization and are also more likely to “help their co-workers manage and prevent problems, demonstrate initiative, show up on time, overlook minor inconveniences, and care about their organizations performance.” And the results also showed that authentic leadership had a direct impact on inclusivity — and that authentic leadership can model inclusivity in the workplace all the way down the ladder. Companies with authentic leadership were also more likely to rate higher on the scale for OCB and that OCB is more likely when an employee feels included and experiences higher rates of OBSE.  

Diversity is also critical to organizational success — companies that are more diverse at every level are more successful than their less-diverse counterparts. Authentic leaders create inclusive environments where everyone feel safe to bring their full selves to work. They won’t have to hide parts of their identity to make others comfortable or to protect themselves from potential discrimination.

How to become an authentic leader

Becoming an authentic leader takes a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness. You’ll need to work to understand yourself and others, using empathy and compassion as your driving force. For examples of authentic leadership in the tech industry, you can look to former CEO of Apple Steve Jobs, former CEO of GE Jack Welch, former CEO of Xerox Anne Mulcahy, and former CEO of IBM Sam Palmisano. These leaders are all known for their authentic leadership styles that helped them drive business success.

To become an authentic leader, you’ll need to embark on a path of self-discovery, establish a strong set of values and principles that will guide you in your decision-making, and be completely honest with yourself about who you are. An authentic leader isn’t afraid to make mistakes or to own up to mistakes when they happen. You’ll need to make sure you’re someone who takes accountability, maintains calm under pressure, and can be vulnerable with coworkers and employees.

It’s important to know your own strengths and weaknesses as an authentic leader and to identify how you cope with success, failure, and setbacks. Authentic leaders are comfortable being themselves, but the first step is figuring out who you are. It requires an immense amount of honesty with yourself, and a full acceptance of your positive and negative traits. Once you’ve figured out who you are and what you stand for, you will be ready to start leading authentically.

Authentic leadership training courses

For those interested in learning more about how to become an authentic leader, several courses that focus on developing authentic leadership skills are available today, including the following: