April 13, 2024

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Authentic Leadership: Characteristics and How To Practice (2023)

6 min read

If you think about a person in your work life who inspired you, can you pinpoint why you gravitated toward them? Maybe a manager was honest, valued relationships, and stayed true to their principles—even when making tough decisions. In essence, you found them to be “real,” or authentic.

Authentic leaders use their belief system to guide their decisions and typically put people first. If you’re working on your leadership skills, here’s what to know about showing authenticity. 

What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership is a management style that prioritizes ethics, emotional intelligence, and the good of the overall team. An authentic leader steers their organization through strongly rooted values and a concern for employee well-being. This genuine approach helps leaders earn trust, inspire loyalty, and make sound decisions that hold up over time.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, brought the concept of authentic leadership into the business cultural zeitgeist in his 2003 book, Authentic Leadership. George’s authentic leadership theory emphasizes that a leader’s values, purpose, heart, relationships, and self-discipline enable them to make ethical, mission-driven decisions.

Business scholars have also examined authentic leadership. A 2005 paper by management professors Bruce J. Avolio and William L. Gardner, “Authentic Leadership Development: Getting To the Root of Positive Forms of Leadership,” examines authentic leadership theory in the context of other management styles, including charismatic leadership, servant leadership, and transformational leadership.

5 characteristics of authentic leaders

  1. Values
  2. Purpose
  3. Heart
  4. Relationships
  5. Self-discipline

Authentic leaders lead with a moral compass and show steadfast commitment to their organization and its mission. According to George, these leaders share five authentic leadership characteristics: 

1. Values

Authentic leaders live by a set of core values that stem from their personal ethics. They use these ethics and moral values to guide decisions both large and small.

2. Purpose

A leader’s authentic behavior comes from a sense of purpose. They think in terms of their entire organization, putting core mission ahead of personal ambition. Combining this sense of purpose with core values enables them to become successful leaders.

3. Heart

Authentic leaders think beyond the financial bottom line when making decisions. They combine strategic thinking with empathy, and place a high value on their team’s personal needs. They also demonstrate self-awareness, meaning they understand their own strengths and limitations, how others perceive them, and how their actions impact others.

4. Relationships

Authentic leaders place a premium on relationship building. They forge meaningful connections with colleagues because they value the job satisfaction of those colleagues, and they want to see their peers succeed. Leaders may form relationships by sharing personal stories, soliciting strategic input, being good listeners, cultivating self awareness, and offering advice.

5. Self-discipline

A disciplined leader can skillfully control their personal behavior and focus on the goals they’ve set. They set an example for other employees, who in turn may feel inspired to authentically commit themselves to the organization.

Authentic leadership vs. other leadership styles

Entrepreneurs, executives, and managers use a variety of leadership styles to steer their teams. Here’s how authentic leadership compares to some other prominent management styles. 

  • Transactional leadership. Transactional leaders rely on a system of rewards and punishments to boost employee performance and increase their bottom line. Compared to authentic leaders, transactional leaders may excel at getting their teams to hit performance-related benchmarks. However, they may be less effective than authentic leaders at aligning their team around a core purpose or mission.
  • Transformational leadership. Transformational leaders emphasize change and inspire employees to achieve a shared vision, often focusing on large-scale, long-term goals. Compared to authentic leaders, transformational leaders may have less of a pulse on the day-to-day work of their team members, as they focus more on the big picture than individuals.
  • Servant leadership. Leaders who use this management style put the needs of others first. Like authentic leaders, servant leaders form strong relationships and help colleagues advance their careers. Yet in their quest to be liked, servant leaders may be less tethered to a purpose or a code of ethics than an authentic leader.

The impact of authentic leadership

Workplaces are a reflection of the people who lead them. Therefore, an authentic leader can foster a work environment where everyone upholds the same core principles: values, purpose, heart, relationships, and self-discipline. With such principles in place, team members may feel free to share ideas without fear of embarrassment, rejection, or retribution. 

Studies have found that by fostering trust and transparency, authentic leadership leads to more innovative work behavior. Additionally, a 2021 academic paper, “Authentic Leadership and Improved Individual Performance: Affective Commitment and Individual Creativity’s Sequential Mediation” by Ana Patrícia Duarte, et al., concluded “authentic leadership reinforces workers’ emotional connection with their organizations, thereby increasing their individual creativity and, subsequently, promoting better on-the-job performance.” In other words, by centering values, purpose, heart, relationships, and self-discipline, managers did not simply improve their own conduct on the job. They also inspired better conduct throughout the organization.

How to practice authentic leadership

  1. Establish a set of values
  2. Lead with your heart
  3. Engage in dialogue with your team
  4. Practice what you preach

You can become a better leader by embracing the core principles of authentic leadership. Here are five essential steps toward becoming a more authentic leader.

1. Establish a set of values

Authentic leaders are guided by ethics and personal values. Use self reflection to think about which core values will guide you as you lead and how you will model them to your employees. For example, if work-life balance is one of your values, model that by having good boundaries for yourself and respecting those of your team members. 

2. Lead with your heart

Authentic leaders care about goals, but they manage to maintain positive workplaces as they pursue those goals. As you guide your team toward new achievements, keep track of your employees’ well-being. Are they growing along with the organization itself? Do they seem fulfilled by the tasks you’ve assigned them? Find ways to reconcile company success and team member success.

3. Engage in dialogue with your team

Authentic leaders don’t walk around the workplace barking directives. Instead, they engage in dialogue with their teams, soliciting strategic input and feedback. Speak to your colleagues with empathy and in human terms while avoiding business jargon. Look for opportunities to expand the conversation beyond the tasks of the day and loop everyone in on the big picture goals you are pursuing.

4. Practice what you preach

Authentic leaders can demand a lot from their employees, but they never ask others to do things they wouldn’t do themselves. If you ask employees to take shifts cleaning a communal kitchen, assign some of those shifts to yourself. Model authentic behavior and expect authentic behavior in return.

Authentic leadership FAQ

Are there any challenges associated with authentic leadership?

One challenge of authentic leadership is that it can take time to percolate through an organization, especially when employees are asked to change their own behavior to mirror their boss’s authentic leadership.

Is it possible for leaders to over-emphasize authenticity at the expense of other important leadership traits?

Yes, it is possible for an authentic leader to emphasize authenticity at the expense of short-term tangible results. If your organization faces a dire need to change course—such as a necessity to turbocharge revenue to avoid bankruptcy—you may need someone who leads authoritatively rather than authentically to accomplish that goal.

Is authenticity more important than experience in a leadership role?

Authenticity often stems from experience. This is because authentic leaders place their moral values front and center, and such values typically come from life experience.

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