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An Analysis of Authentic Leadership

Updated: May 21, 2020

Authentic leadership style is one of the more recent leadership styles to come under academic scrutiny. This fascinating style is diverse and complex. Genuine, heartfelt, sincere and other terms come to mind when attempting to explain authenticity. When studying authenticity as a leadership style the researcher must understand the leader, starting with inner workings of the leader’s mind, then move outward to how that impacts the minds and behaviors of the followers. One final notion to consider and try to prove/disprove how the leaders and followers ultimately impact an organization as a whole. Researchers have developed ways to test authentic leadership but there is much work to be done to fully establish authentic leadership as strongly as other leadership styles.

An Analysis of the Authentic Leadership Style

The authentic leadership style is more complex than the name suggests. It may be analyzed internally and/or externally. Authentic leadership has many components and approaches and it can be viewed from more than one perspective. Finally, as with any topic, the style has its strengths and also its criticisms.

The Emergence of Authentic Leadership

Leadership, as a practice, has likely been a part of human culture since we started group and hierarchy behavior as modern humans. It has been undertaken for research into organizational leadership for well over 50 years (Bass 1990). Leadership is as varied as there are types of followers.

The study of authentic leadership, as a leadership style, is gaining attention in modern culture due to our culture’s growing demands for leaders that people feel they can trust. This likely due, at least in part, to “upheavals” such as the failures in the banking industry and a plethora of corporate failures due to corruption (Northouse, 2016). Research in this facet of leadership is still somewhat in its infancy, as it is one of the newest areas to be researched.

The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines authenticity as “confirming to an original” and being “true to one’s own personality, spirit or character” (2018). In order to be an effective authentic leader, to be true to one’s self, the leader must first know and understand their personality, spirit or character. Of course, the characteristic of being “not false” can be tricky. To be authentic the leader must express their true feelings and be genuine. That means expressing the feelings that aren’t always so easy to express as well. Although it may be difficult to remain genuine even with challenging emotion, the effort pays off in the form of experience gained and respect earned from followers.

Society gives members a preconceived notion of what a leader should look and act like. Culture plays a vital role in what is acceptable and what is considered to be taboo. Being authentic means that even if a leader’s personal values or style clash with the socially acceptable norm, they will not digress from their stance just to appease the masses. Authenticity can therefore denote strength and sometimes even courage to act according to individual truths, failing to buckle under the pressure of conforming to norms.

Intrapersonal vs. Interpersonal

Intrapersonal authentic leadership focuses on the leader’s self-knowledge, self-regulation and self-concept while interpersonal authentic leadership is more “relational” focusing on the relationship of leaders and followers together (Northouse, 2016; Shamir and Eilam, 2005). The application of knowledge to the goal setting, and attainment, can sometimes only be achieved when intrapersonal leadership adds a dimension to leadership as a whole.

Intrapersonal Authentic Leadership

Leadership begins inside the mind of the leader. The ability to recognize one’s own emotions, and those of others, is one of the many keys to leadership and is one component of emotional intelligence. An effective leader must possess the ability identify emotions accurately and use that data to guide behaviors to favorable environmental adaptations. Emotional intelligence accounted for 67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance in leaders, and mattered twice as much as technical expertise or IQ in a study that correlated certain characteristics with job performance and leadership skills (Goleman 1998).

Looking within the leader’s own mind and understanding their own nature and mechanisms allows the leader to later apply that knowledge externally. When attempting to understand human behavior, the variables are almost limitless. Each individual has their own nature and nurture variables that make the person who they are. A leader who understands their intrinsic mechanisms is more likely to recognize certain variables in others and apply that knowledge to aid in the advancement or development of key characteristics or behaviors needed to reach a particular goal.

One important aspect of being personally aware of one’s behavior and motivations is the alchemical manifestations that arise from the ability to transform an apparently negative characteristic or behavior into a positive one. For example, if a leader comes to the conclusions that they are overly stubborn to the point that being stubborn is causing more harm than good, that individual would be excellent in services designed to compel people in a way that they may not have originally ventured outside their comfort zone.

Plant describe a lengthy list of characteristics that authentic leaders possess starting with “knowing what drives, angers, motivates, frustrates, and inspires” themselves and “the ability to control unexpected emotions like anger and frustration (2012). Leaders not only must understand the complexities of their emotions, but they must learn to control them. That type of disciple comes easier to some than to others, but the beauty of this style is how varied the characteristics of it can be. The skill sets vary and some people are stronger in some skills needed and low in others, no two people have the same skill sets, and the mix probably doesn’t correlate with effectiveness (2012).

Interpersonal Authentic Leadership

Eagly describes the exchange and development of leaders and followers together as an interpersonal leadership process (2005). While the leader can work on intrapersonal development alone and have key understandings of the mechanisms of their own mind, interpersonal leadership must include the leader and at least one follower. The reciprocal process that evolves as leaders and followers exchange ideas and develop together is interpersonal leadership. When authenticity is added to the equation a certain level of respect and understand can grow into a bond that neither may have expected at first. This comes from the understanding that both are approaching each other with genuine responses. Authenticity impacts the attainment of goals ideally by eliminating the need to consider that either the leader or the follower(s) are not being genuine. Dr. Rivera explains, “When leaders act in ways that are in-congruent to either their own or the organizations values or when they create leader personas, this leads to ineffective leadership cultures characterized by dysfunction, moral deception, disingenuous and duplicitous leadership practice,” (2015). Having to weed out deception and dysfunction is time consuming and a waste of the team’s valuable energy.

Perhaps authentic leadership is not so much a “fixed trait” but instead develops in individuals as they grow and progress through life. Some researchers have even hypothesized that the authentic leadership style can be triggered by a “major life event” (Northouse, 2016).

It is important to note that an authentic leader would benefit authentic followers the most. An insincere follower will likely not derive the benefits that this type of leadership often produces. This is likely due the mutual trust implicit in the authentic leader-follower relationship.  An inauthentic follower will not derive the maximum benefit from the authentic leader.

The Developmental Perspective

Walumbwa et al. explain authentic leadership as a pattern of behavior based in the individual’s mental mechanisms and ethics further identifying four key components: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency (2018).

The Components of Authentic Leadership

Walumba and associates identified four components of authentic leadership: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency (Northouse, 2016).


Relating back to intrapersonal authentic leadership, self-awareness is a “psychological state” where the individual focuses their attention internally (Cherry, 2017).  Self-awareness can be examined from two perspectives, public and private self-awareness. Public self-awareness is understanding how one appears to others, and can compel individuals to succumb to social norms. In contrast, private self-awareness is understanding some internal aspect of one’s self (Cherry, 2017).

Internalized Moral Perspective

Internalized moral perspective is defined as regulating behavior according to our internal standards and values, not according cultural norms or what other say (Thacker 2016). A leader must break aware from the norms at times. Having a strong internalized moral perspective allows an effective leader to break away from norms with confidence, even when other disagree. A leader becomes authentic by repeatedly adhering to their own values and beliefs whether or not those adhere to social norms.

Balanced Processing

Simply put, balanced processing is objectivity. There is a certain degree of disclosure involve as well. The authentic leader would not be hesitant to disclose their position on the particular topic but would also objectively consider all other potential viewpoints.

Revealing one’s true self to others means revealing ones motives and feelings to others. This would mean showing the good and the bad aspects of one’s self with minimal restraint.

Relational Transparency

Revealing one’s true self to others means revealing ones motives and feelings to others. This would mean showing the good and the bad aspects of one’s self with minimal restraint. This is arguably very similar to simple authenticity but with the understanding that there are degrees of relational transparency where authenticity is more “black and white”.

The Practical Approach vs. the Theoretical Approach

The practical approach is rooted in real life examples of training and development leadership while the theoretical approach is rooted in research in the social sciences for the analysis of authentic leadership (Northouse, 2016)

The Practical Approach

Bill George developed an authentic leadership approach based on his experience and interviews as a corporate executive. In his book Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value, George identifies five basic characteristics that authentic leaders possess: (1) understanding of their purpose, (2) a strong moral compass, (3) a tendency to develop trusting relationships, (4) self-discipline, and (5) passion (George, 2003). Simply put these can be surmised as purpose, values, relationships, self-disciple, and heart (Northouse, 2016) (George, 2003).

The Theoretical Approach

The University of Nebraska’s Gallup Leadership Institute spearheaded some notable research into authentic leadership at their leadership summit in two sets of publications in 2005: Leadership Quarterly and Authentic Leadership Theory and Process: Origins Effects and Development and Management (Northouse, 2016). As a culture, interest in authenticity has increased after what many leading researchers on the subject consider “widespread unethical and ineffective leadership necessitated the need for more humane, constructive leadership that served the common good (Fry & Whittington, 2005; Luthans & Avolio, 2003).

Researchers do face a challenge when it comes to defining the constructs of authentic leadership and identifying the characteristics (Northouse, 2016). Walumbwa et al. defined authentic leadership as “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 works (2008; Northouse 2016).

Factors that Influence Authentic Leadership

Positive psychology and organizational behavior have outlined four traits that increase the likelihood an individual will develop an authentic leadership style: confidence, hope, optimism and resilience (Luthans and Avolio, 2003).


Confidence is a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's circumstances (Merriam Webster, 2018). When a challenge presents itself a leader with confidence will be more likely to overcome and even relish the challenge. Confidence is an attractive characteristic for followers too because it is contagious. A leader’s confidence and infect their followers helping the whole team prevail over obstacles


Hope may be inspirational. The “dream” of what may be potentially drives to the leader to make these aspirations a reality. When team members aspirations align with those of the leaders hope can see both through until the dream becomes a reality.


Is the glass half full or half empty? Seeing the glass as half full may a quarter of the battle to authentic leadership. The extra energy expended when needing to overcome negative perspectives can be a wasteful use energy for leaders and followers alike. Optimism is interwoven with confidence and hope in the sense that the work together and build on one another.


Seeing the good in things is great but when a situation turns for the worst resilience will see a leader through. The ability to recuperate is hugely important. When a plan falls apart having a resilient leader who does not give up, or turn negative, will give their team an advantage. In the end, both leaders and followers will have more confidence in their strength and ability to overcome whatever happens next.

The Impact of Critical Life Events

Critical events are key events that have the tendency to shape people’s lives. They can eb positive events or they can be negative events. Whether they are positive or negative critical life events act as a facilitator for change. An individual can learn much about themselves and the people around them during these critical events and walk away with a deeper understanding of themselves. This leads to greater authenticity.

Strengths and Criticisms


Northouse outlines five key strength factors to authentic leadership: (1) fulfilling the need for trustworthy leadership, (2) broad guidelines for aspiring authentic leaders, (3) its moral dimension, (4) emphasis on the development of authentic values and behaviors over time, (5) measurement via the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (Northouse 2016; Avolio et al., 2009; Walumbwa et al., 2008. Followers seek authenticity in a world that is growing more and more virtual. As people see the corruption in corporations and other key parts of life, they are seeking leadership that parallels their beliefs, who they can trust. Authentic leadership is not synonymous with one “type” of person. Morality is important because as leaders accrue power, followers want to feel that their leaders will do right by them and generally use the power in a positive way. Ultimately, the attraction to authentic leadership is that with the broad guidelines and almost anybody can develop authentic leadership with time and effort.


George’s practical approach is arguably not based on a broad empirical base and has not been tested for validity (Northouse, 2016). In addition the moral component has not been fully explained. It is difficult to quantify authentic leadership with all the variables there are to test.

Although researchers have questioned whether beneficial mental traits should be considered a component of authentic leadership, it is difficult not include psychology, especially in intrapersonal leadership studies. Does authentic leadership truly result in positive organizational outcomes? It does seem very likely, the question is how to prove that it does.


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