Positive Leadership: How to be an Authentic Leader

positive leadership

According to Jensen and Luthans (2006), an employee’s perception of authentic leadership is the strongest single predictor of job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and workplace happiness.

While there is no single personality trait or attitude that constitutes an “authentic leader,” a couple of key traits can help us identify them. 

Within the field of positive psychology, authenticity has been defined as:

“owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, preferences or beliefs, processes captured by the impetus to know oneself” (Seligman, 2002).

In other words, “authenticity” is knowing and being oneself.

When defining authentic leadership, some researchers emphasize positive psychological capital (hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience), while others focus on ethics (Shamir & Eilam, 2005; Sparrowe, 2005).

The majority of authors, however, agree that authentic leadership goes beyond being true to oneself (Ilies, Morgeson, & Nahrgang, 2005). Jensen and Luthans (2006), for instance, mention three additional characteristics that can be found in authentic leaders:

  1. They are motivated by personal convictions, rather than attaining status or personal benefits.
  2. They are original, rather than imitating someone else.
  3. The actions of authentic leaders are based on their personal values.

These characteristics show that irrelevant of any preferred leadership style, authentic leaders act in accordance with deep personal values; this helps them gain the trust and respect of others (B. J. Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, & May, 2004).


An Example of Authentic Leadership

Looking at these characteristics, are you able to identify an authentic leader in your work environment?

I am fortunate to have worked for an authentic leader who showed me and my colleagues how to put this theory into practice.

As the CEO of an SME, Bruno would invite his management team for dinner at least once a year. Rather than booking a fancy restaurant, he would invite the team of five into the intimacy of his small two bedroom apartment, where he would cook for us.

During the evening and the three courses of freshly cooked seafood, steak, and chocolate fondant, we got to know him much better than we would have in any well-known, expensive restaurant. Rather than trying to impress us, he simply gave us the chance to see behind the curtains. 

What we found was no different from what we already knew from the stage: Bruno was no different with us in his little home than he was in the office. It was touching and refreshing to see how he lived, in an old building in a small apartment with a fold-in bed. His “home” self and personality matched the Bruno we saw at work. 

There was no need for him to pretend that he lived in an expensive mansion, being the CEO, nor was he proud of living a simple lifestyle. He was just himself: a humble person who valued his management team and was not afraid of letting them into his private space.

He did not base his authority on anything other than his humble person. He did not put on a face; he was just himself.

Best-selling author Bill George (2007) illustrates this idea of not wearing different masks in his book “True North.” He challenges the reader to think of their life as a house, with family as the living room, personal life as the bedroom and professional life as the study.

George then asks the question: can you knock down the walls and be the same person in all rooms? Can you walk from one room to the next without having to change who you are? 

Being an authentic leader means building on the past, embracing one’s own life story and learning from it. George (2007) writes how Daniel Vasella, former CEO of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, turned his difficult childhood around. After experiencing the loss of one sister to cancer, another in an accident, and his father during surgery, Vasella decided to become a doctor.

Vasella got a PhD in medicine along with a management degree from Harvard Business School. While he was often criticized for his high salary, he owned the reputation of an ethical leader who managed to build a corporate culture around compassion, competence, and competition (George, 2007). Rather than disclaiming his past, he built on his life story.

Authentic leadership is not just about the leader, but also the team. Authentic leaders inspire and motivate others through role modeling.

Leaders act first, and they have to believe in their team before they do.

“The largest developmental impact was raising the positive beliefs of followers, instilling in them the conviction that they were better at a performance task than they thought.” – B.J. Avolio and Gardner (2005).

Do you identify as an authentic leader? Do you get to work someone who you would describe as an authentic leader? Please leave any of your thoughts below, we would love to hear from you. 

Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. L., & May, D. R. (2004). Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 15, 801-823.

George, B. (2007). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ilies, R., Morgeson, F. P., & Nahrgang, J. D. (2005). Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: Unterstanding leader-follower outcomes. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 373-394.

Jensen, S. M., & Luthans, F. (2006). Entrepreneurs as authentic leaders: impact on employees’ attitudes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(8), 646-666.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happines: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Shamir, B., & Eilam, G. (2005). “What’s your story?”: A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 395-417.

Sparrowe, R. T. (2005). Authentic Leadership and the narrative self. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 419-439.

About the Author

Birgit Ohlin is a passionate Life Coach and Leadership Consultant who believes in the flow of life. This former Marketing Manager came across Positive Psychology during her Master’s degree and it had a profound effect on her. She since studied Coaching and has turned her focus to innovation, transformation and change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *