top of page

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 wi