Being a great leader is no easy job.
Talented leaders must balance the input and needs of their followers while still ensuring the collective meets its goals.
They must carefully regulate their own behavior and emotions, recognizing these are contagious and can reflect on the image of their team.
Most importantly, skilled leaders ensure consistency between what they say and what they do, and take care to make decisions that allow them to sleep soundly at night.
The few of us who’ve mastered this balancing act can be said to have mastered the art of authentic leadership. And although it may seem challenging, this empowering and open style of command is within reach for even rookie leaders.
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This Article Contains:
- What Is the Authentic Leadership Style?
- The Theory and Model Explained
- 10 Characteristics and Traits of Authentic Leaders
- 3 Examples of Authentic Leadership in Action
- Pros and Cons of the Leadership Approach
- Training Authentic Leadership Skills in Coaching
- 7 Best Exercises and Activities
- 2 Questionnaires and Inventories
- 8 Questions to Ask Your Coaching Clients
- Fascinating Books on the Topic
- A Take-Home Message
What Is the Authentic Leadership Style?
Authentic leadership is
“a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development.”
Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, and Peterson, 2008, p. 94
This definition combines many key aspects of authentic leadership identified by researchers, including:
- The promotion of followers’ psychological capacities, such as resilience (Luthans & Avolio, 2003)
- High self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-acceptance that facilitates openness and non-defensiveness with others (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005; Kernis, 2003)
- Consistency between our values, beliefs, and actions (Walumbwa et al., 2008)
- The use of high ethical standards to guide decision-making and behavior (May, Chan, Hodges, & Avolio, 2003)
Authentic leadership and emotional intelligence
The facets of an authentic leadership style overlap substantially with conceptualizations of emotional intelligence (EI). For instance, Goleman’s four-dimensional model of EI includes the component of self-awareness.
Further, this model includes various competencies that overlap with authentic leadership, such as confidence and transparency, which are similar to self-esteem and openness and aimed at facilitating positive interactions with others (Goleman, 1995; Miao, Humphrey, & Qian, 2018).
Indeed, meta-analytic research has confirmed that the authentic leadership style is significantly and positively related to EI and that high-EI leaders can better discern when it is most appropriate to employ the authentic leadership style (Miao et al., 2018).
The Theory and Model Explained
Leading theories of authentic leadership draw on a four-dimensional model of the concept (Neider & Schriesheim, 2011):
Understanding how you make meaning of the world and how that meaning-making process affects self-image over time; awareness of strengths, weaknesses, your multifaceted nature, and your impact on others.
- Relational transparency
Presenting your authentic self to others; promoting trust through disclosure, information sharing, and expression of true thoughts and feelings.
- Balanced processing
Objective analysis of all relevant data before making decisions; a willingness to solicit and consider views that challenge your own.
- Internalized moral perspective
Self-regulation guided by internal moral standards and values rather than external standards; behaving and making decisions consistent with these internalized values.
This four-factor model represents a major contribution to the study of authentic leadership and is a first step toward increasing its applications in practice through training and interventions.
10 Characteristics and Traits of Authentic Leaders
So what makes good, authentic leaders?
If a person possesses some of the following traits, they are likely to use the authentic leadership style effectively (Kotzé & Nel, 2017).
- Consensus orientation
- Skill at critical evaluation
- Social skills/confidence
- Innovation/forward thinking
- Open expression and display of emotions
- Behavioral consistency across people and situations
- Ability to self-regulate
- Empathy and caring
Unsurprisingly, these characteristics overlap significantly with the various components of authentic leadership’s four-dimensional conceptualization. For instance, critical evaluation skills can aid with balanced processing when making decisions, while empathy can aid with relational transparency.
3 Examples of Authentic Leadership in Action
To help illustrate the various applications of authentic leadership, take a look at the following real-life examples drawn from interviews and case studies.
Authentic leadership in the workplace
One interview-based study exploring the intersection between work managers’ identities and authentic leadership highlights the challenges involved in balancing the authentic leadership style with your preferred leadership style (Nyberg & Sveningsson, 2014).
The managers in this study explained that they constituted a natural hub around which their workgroups and departments revolved. This meant they had a high level of impact on operational procedures and outcomes.
Consequently, the managers of this leader-centric organization found the principles of authentic leadership, which center around inclusion and worker involvement, to contrast with their natural approaches to leadership, which involved being forceful and dominant in decision-making and sometimes cutting collaborative processes short (Nyberg & Sveningsson, 2014).
Therefore, depending on a manager’s natural style of leading, what we consider an ‘authentic’ leadership style may not be authentic in the sense that it is inherent or feels natural to a given leader.
Authentic leadership in healthcare
One study of skilled nursing facility administrators found that authentic leadership can be leveraged to bring about healthier and safer practice environments for nurses and their patients (Penrod, 2017).
Among the four dimensions of authentic leadership noted as important, internalized moral perspective was mentioned most often by the study’s interviewees (95%). In particular, administrators who maintained a genuine positive attitude, a willingness to ‘get their hands dirty,’ and regularly demonstrated appreciation for their employees’ work drove higher levels of job satisfaction.
Likewise, an internalized belief in the importance of patient safety among administrators would translate into better formal and informal training regarding safety procedures (Penrod, 2017).
A look at authentic leadership in education
Authentic leadership shown by principals and other education leaders can be especially powerful during challenging times of change.
One study conducted in Thailand followed the principal of a small primary school 100 kilometers west of Bangkok. Principal Somchai was recognized as an illustrative case of someone who effectively used the authentic leadership style to navigate the impact of over 20 years of nationwide educational reform (Kulophas & Hallinger, 2021).
When interviewed, Principal Somchai expressed a strong belief in involving teachers and parents in decision-making. This was reflected in the frequency with which he formally and informally engaged teachers, parents, and local community members to gather views and input on decisions.
He also noted the importance of being transparent when planned activities didn’t work out and would personally take on extra work during busy periods. Taken together, these actions motivated teachers’ engagement, reduced turnover, and nurtured a family-like atmosphere within the school community (Kulophas & Hallinger, 2021).
Pros and Cons of the Leadership Approach
The most appropriate style of leadership to use in any situation highly depends on the context in which a leader and team are working. Therefore, the authentic leadership style has pros and cons in different situations.
Pros of the authentic leadership style
Research has identified a combination of positive relational and performance-based outcomes associated with authentic leadership. In particular, authentic leadership has been shown to increase trust and work engagement while also facilitating more effective conflict management (Fotohabadi & Kelly, 2018; Hassan & Ahmed, 2011).
Further, authentic leaders are more aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and values, so they tend to exhibit greater social awareness and manage relationships more effectively (Pereira, 2015).
Cons of the authentic leadership style
One downside of the authentic leadership style is that it is often inappropriate in high-risk and emergency situations.
Take, for example, the commander of a submarine who is trying to ensure their crew remains undetected. Upon learning of an approaching unidentified vessel, it would be inappropriate to stop and build consensus around the most appropriate course of action as per the authentic leadership style.
Rather, this leader should adopt a commanding or directive leadership style to direct the rest of their team to take evasive action before it is too late (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2013).
Additionally, research has shown that organizations may see diminishing returns from the authentic leadership style when it comes to innovation. This is because the apparent moral superiority of these leaders can inadvertently communicate that innovative suggestions are not needed because the leader already knows best (Černe, Sumanth, & Škerlavaj, 2016).
Training Authentic Leadership Skills in Coaching
Studies are still investigating the best ways to deliver training in authentic leadership.
However, it appears that with the proper intervention, you can expect a significant increase in a client’s authentic leadership skills after just 12 one-hour sessions of training (Fusco, O’Riordan, & Palmer, 2016).
Here are seven steps that may form part of an authentic leadership coaching program (Klass, 2019):
- Identify the leader’s unique strengths and talents
Consider administering a strengths assessment or asking the leader to reflect on skills and talents that come most naturally to them and energize them.
- Compile a list of the leader’s core values
Investigate the leader’s values to help create a clear moral basis for making decisions and setting direction.
- Gather perspectives from the client’s colleagues or boss
Encourage the leader to ask for feedback from others who’ve seen their leadership in action.
- Help clients find their authentic voice
Discourage clients from mimicking styles of communication they’ve seen used by other leaders and instead find a volume and rhythm that feels most natural to them.
- Have clients create and share powerful stories
Teach your clients the power of emotive storytelling as a means to illustrate important discoveries and lessons to followers.
- Develop an authentic leadership action plan
Help clients use the information they’ve gathered about their strengths, values, and communication to set goals about how they wish to present themselves as an authentic leader.
- Periodically reevaluate and realign the plan
With each major shift in the client’s career, have them check in with themselves to ensure their current leadership style is still authentic while still meeting the needs of their work situation.
7 Best Exercises and Activities
If you’re looking to design a training program, look at the following free exercises to develop each of the four dimensions of authentic leadership:
- Self-Awareness Worksheet for Adults
This worksheet features 15 questions prompting insight into your capabilities, traits, and life experiences.
- The EQ 5 Point Tool
This activity walks through five steps to facilitate clear and respectful communication when broaching difficult topics with others.
- Decision-Making Worksheet for Adults
This worksheet presents six questions that support balanced and effective decision-making and decision evaluation.
- Writing Your Mission Statement
This worksheet guides users through a series of four questions to help clarify links between values, skills, and the impact you wish to leave on the world.
3 Best group activities
Online group coaching, in particular, has been effective for training clients in the authentic leadership style (Fusco et al., 2016).
For resources to support your group coaching in this leadership style, check out the following free worksheets.
- Empathy Bingo
This worksheet can help leaders and their teams practice differentiating between empathy and other responses they may have during dialog with others, including interrogating, storytelling, or consoling.
- Generating Alternative Solutions and Better Decision-Making
This worksheet can help a leader and their team systematically practice better decision-making by brainstorming many alternative solutions to a problem.
- Spotting Good Traits
This worksheet can be adapted for use with a group of leaders as a way to help them spot and reflect on positive leadership traits. Consider inviting the members of your coaching group to share positive leadership traits they have observed in one another at the beginning of the exercise.
2 Questionnaires and Inventories
The two leading tools for assessing authentic leadership are the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ) and Authentic Leadership Inventory (ALI), both of which can be administered to a leader’s followers.
Authentic Leadership Questionnaire
The ALQ is one of the most commonly used tools assessing authentic leadership and was developed by leading scholars in this field (Walumbwa et al., 2008).
This questionnaire features 16 statements assessing the four above-mentioned dimensions of authentic leadership style. All items are presented on five-point scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
Sample items from each of the questionnaire’s sub-dimensions are as follows:
- My leader seeks feedback to improve interactions with others.
- My leader accurately describes how others view their capabilities.
- My leader says exactly what they mean.
- My leader is willing to admit mistakes when they are made.
- My leader solicits views that challenge their deeply held positions.
- My leader listens carefully to different points of view before coming to conclusions.
Internalized moral perspective
- My leader demonstrates beliefs that are consistent with actions.
- My leader makes decisions based on their core beliefs.
If you’re interested, you can purchase a copy of the ALQ through Mind Garden.
Authentic Leadership Inventory
The Authentic Leadership Inventory (ALI) was developed as an alternative to the ALQ, given concerns about the former questionnaire’s content validity and factor structure (Neider & Schriesheim, 2011).
This inventory features 14 positively worded statements that assess authentic leadership’s four sub-dimensions. All items are presented on five-point scales ranging from 1 (disagree strongly) to 5 (agree strongly).
The full set of items is as follows:
- My leader describes accurately the way that others view their abilities.
- My leader shows that they understand their strengths and weaknesses.
- My leader is clearly aware of the impact they have on others.
- My leader clearly states what they mean.
- My leader openly shares information with others.
- My leader expresses their ideas and thoughts clearly to others.
- My leader asks for ideas that challenge their core beliefs.
- My leader carefully listens to alternative perspectives before reaching a conclusion.
- My leader objectively analyzes relevant data before making a decision.
- My leader encourages others to voice opposing points of view.
Internalized moral perspective
- My leader shows consistency between their beliefs and actions.
- My leader uses their core beliefs to make decisions.
- My leader resists pressure to do things contrary to their beliefs.
- My leader is guided in their actions by internal moral standards.
8 Questions to Ask Your Coaching Clients
Looking for a quick way to gauge your clients’ self-perceptions of authentic leadership? Consider posing the following questions adapted from the Authentic Leadership Self-Assessment Questionnaire (Northouse, 2010):
- Can you list your three greatest weaknesses?
- Do your actions reflect your core values?
- Do you seek others’ opinions before making up your own mind?
- Do you openly share your feelings with others?
- Can you list your three greatest strengths?
- Do you allow group pressure to control you?
- Do you listen closely to the ideas of those who disagree with you?
- Do you let others know who you truly are as a person?
You can access the full questionnaire and scoring information from the University of North Carolina Wilmington website.
Fascinating Books on the Topic
Here are some of our favorite practical books for integrating the principles of authentic leadership in your work.
1. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts – Brené Brown
Authentic leaders recognize the value of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability as keys to bringing out the potential of their followers.
In this book, New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown draws on two decades of research to reveal the keys to cultivating a work culture of empathy and connection.
Accessible and loaded with moving anecdotes from global leaders, this book is a must-have resource for anyone looking to overcome fear and begin leading with authenticity and courage.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Authentic Leadership: How to Lead With Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Prove & Nothing to Lose – Dan Owolabi
Even the most well-respected leaders experience moments of fear and insecurity, but that need not be the case.
In this book, Dan Owolabi breaks down the timeless principles of authentic leadership through stories, research findings, and a range of practical examples.
In particular, this book will teach you how to lead from a place of genuine confidence by first learning the skills to lead yourself.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership – Bill George and Peter Sims
In this book, the authors present the results of interviews with 125 top leaders, presenting five focus areas for realizing success as a leader.
Among these is the importance of clarifying your values and seeking integration across your life to bring about authenticity and groundedness as a leader.
Find the book on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
The first step to becoming an authentic leader is to know thyself.
From this place of genuine understanding about your own values, limitations, and strengths, you’ll be in a better position to hear and integrate the perspectives of those you lead. You’ll also be better able to weigh up decisions and take action in ways that align with your values and those of the collective you represent.
We hope this article has given you a better understanding of the authentic leadership style and inspired you to strengthen your own leadership capabilities. And be sure to let us know in the comments if you’ve tried any of the exercises listed or explored the further reading.
As always, we’d love to hear from you. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
- Brown. B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. Random House.
- Černe, M., Sumanth, J., & Škerlavaj, M. (2016). Everything in moderation: Authentic leadership, leader-member exchange and idea implementation. In M. Škerlavaj, M. Černe, A. Dysvik, & A. Carlsen (Eds.), Capitalizing on creativity at work (pp. 126–138). Edward Elgar.
- Fotohabadi, M., & Kelly, L. (2018). Making conflict work: Authentic leadership and reactive and reflective management styles. Journal of General Management, 43(2), 70–78.
- Fusco, T., O’Riordan, S., & Palmer, S. (2016). Assessing the efficacy of authentic leadership group-coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 11(2), 118–128.
- Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 343–372.
- George, B., & Sims, P. (2007). True north: Discover your authentic leadership. Jossey-Bass.
- Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
- Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.
- Hassan, A., & Ahmed, F. (2011). Authentic leadership, trust and work engagement. International Journal of Human and Social Sciences, 6(3), 164–170.
- Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 1–26.
- Klass, T. (2019, July 2). 7 Strategies to showcase your authentic leadership. Training Industry. Retrieved from https://trainingindustry.com/articles/leadership/7-strategies-to-showcase-your-authentic-leadership/
- Kotzé, M., & Nel, P. (2017). Personal factor effects on authentic leadership. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 27(1), 47–53.
- Kulophas, D., & Hallinger, P. (2021). Leading when the mouth and heart are in unison: A case study of authentic school leadership in Thailand. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 24(2), 145–156.
- Luthans, F., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Authentic leadership development. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship (pp. 241–258). Berrett-Koehler.
- May, D. R., Chan, A. Y., Hodges, T. D., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 32(3), 247–260.
- Miao, C., Humphrey, R. H., & Qian, S. (2018). Emotional intelligence and authentic leadership: A meta-analysis. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 39(5), 679–690.
- Neider, L. L., & Schriesheim, C. A. (2011). The authentic leadership inventory (ALI): Development and empirical tests. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(6), 1146–1164.
- Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Sage.
- Nyberg, D., & Sveningsson, S. (2014). Paradoxes of authentic leadership: Leader identity struggles. Leadership, 10(4), 437–455.
- Owolabi, D. (2020). Authentic leadership: How to lead with nothing to hide, nothing to prove & nothing to lose. Authentic Leadership.
- Penrod, A. K. (2017). Authentic leadership in US skilled nursing facilities: A multiple case study (Doctoral dissertation). Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- Pereira, B. (2015, May 18). Authentic leadership: Benefits and qualities. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/authentic-leadership-benefits-qualities-dr-bruce-r-pereira/
- Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126.