Authentic leadership: a lifelong habit

What is authentic leadership? Discover how we can help you and your leaders lead more authentically.

The concept of “authenticity” can be traced back to ancient Greece. Ancient Greek philosophers considered authenticity as an important state through an emphasis on being in control of one’s own life and the ubiquitous admonition: “know thyself”.

Authentic leadership evolved and really took shape in the 1960s as a way to describe how an organization reflects itself authentically through leadership. 

Some believed that an entire organization could act authentically like a single person through responsibility, reactions to uncertainty, and creativity. Others believed that authentic leadership is actually more about how the leaders define their own role within an organization. 

People tend to trust leaders when they believe they are interacting with the real person (authenticity), when they have faith in a leader’s judgment and competence (logic), and when they feel that a leader cares about them (empathy). When trust is lost, it can almost always be traced back to a breakdown in one of these three drivers. If people feel they’re not getting access to the “real” you—to a full and complete accounting of what you know, think, and feel—then you probably have an “authenticity wobble”.

PotentialSquared’s CEO, Colin Hunter, takes up the story in his book Be More Wrong: “Business theorists agree that authenticity is an essential element of leadership. People know at base level when someone is being dishonest. They want you to be straight with them.”

Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations writes: “We must answer the big questions in our organizations…

  • What is real?
  • What is honest?
  • What is quality?
  • What has value?

She continues: “We effect change by engaging in robust conversations with ourselves, our colleagues, our customers, our family, the world. Whether you are governing a country, running an organization, or participating in a committed personal relationship, your ability to effect change will increase as you become more responsive to your world and to the individuals who are central to your happiness and success.”

Colin Hunter concludes: “Authenticity is about how true, reliable, trustworthy, or credible you appear in all areas, all the time. This is mainly measured by the consistency of how you show up. Since we’re defined by what we do rather than what we say we’re going to do, patterns of how you do things are an expression of what you are…”

“The authentic self you bring to any challenge will develop into a new authentic self. The learned behaviours, or more specifically habits, are the additional pieces that add to an evolving individual and leader.”

Useful definitions and references

Because the concept itself is not yet fully mature in a theoretical sense, there are many different definitions of authentic leadership, each with its own nuances. However, consensus appears to be growing that authentic leadership includes these distinct qualities: 

  • An authentic leader is always self-aware (Duignan, 2014). 
  • They trust their thoughts, feelings, motives and values (Kernis, 2003). 
  • They believe in self-inquiry and self-realization (Gardner et al., 2011). 

An authentic leader reflects on their decisions, asks for feedback and opinions (both supporting and opposing), and believes to resolve the conflicts in a non-manipulative (Henderson & Hoy, 1982, as cited in Gardner et al., 2011 ) and balanced (Kernis and Goldman, 2006) way; through unbiased, honest and ethically and morally uplifting practices (Duignan & Bhindi, 2009). 

Get in touch to discover how we can help you and your leaders lead more authentically.