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Developing authentic leaders


Margot Zielinska defines what it means to be an authentic leader and the challenges of developing authenticity.




In today’s turbulent economic and political climate, it seems that we are becoming dissatisfied and disillusioned with corporate leaders. A recent global survey by Kenexa reports that only 38 percent of employees rate their leaders as effective. This is a shocking statistic which paints a bleak picture of leaders. However it is even more worrying when our research also shows that employee engagement is actually five times higher for those employees who believe their leaders are effective, compared to those who say they follow neutral or ineffective leaders.

This loss of faith in contemporary leaders has propelled researchers and practitioners to take a fresh look at the state of leadership theory and development, bringing about a renewed interest in the concept of authentic leadership.

"Leaders can learn from the experiences of others but to be authentic they must lead in their own way."

In the quest for authentic leaders, Bill George (2003), a former corporate head himself, issued a statement: ‘Wanted – Authentic Leaders’ declaring ‘we need leaders who lead with purpose, values and integrity; leaders who build enduring organizations, motivate their employees to provide superior customer service, and create long-term value for shareholders’. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones started in 2001 by asking executives a single question: ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ This simple question without fail silenced rooms of executives, however it started a fascinating debate and research into authentic leadership.

So what is authentic leadership? Despite the fact that the concept of authenticity can be traced back to ancient Greece where being authentic meant "to thine own self be true", the theoretical treatment of authenticity in the context of leadership is relatively new and still in development.

The first theoretical model was proposed in 2003, by Luthans and Avolio, who defined authentic leadership as "a process that draws from both positive psychological capacities and a highly developed organisational context, which results in both greater self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviours on the part of the leaders and associates, fostering positive development".

It remains to be seen how authentic leadership theory will evolve and how it will relate to existing leadership models but importantly the question of authenticity focuses the debate on being a leader as opposed to leadership as doing (Klenke, 2007).

Core elements of authentic leadership

As different perspectives on authentic leadership are emerging, there are some commonalities between them in terms of their core elements. These have direct implications for leadership development: 

Self-awareness, self-regulation and personal courage

Self-awareness: Authentic leaders are true to themselves and aware of their own values, beliefs, strengths, identity, sense of purpose, emotions, motivations, goals and their impact on others. Self-awareness is a constantly evolving process in which leaders continually become aware of their experiences and the context in which they operate.

Self-regulation: Self-regulation is a process by which they align their experiences with their actions and intentions. Self-awareness enables leaders to be "originals not copies" (Shamir & Eilam, 2005) and to lead from their own personal convictions. Many organisations have cultivated a culture in which leaders are trying to attain some kind of perfection and a lot of leadership development on offer attempts to help leaders achieve it. However this contradicts the notion of authenticity which cannot be achieved by adopting someone else’s image, style, methods or behaviours.

Most of us distrust leaders with perfectly manicured images. Leaders can learn from the experiences of others but to be authentic they must lead in their own way. But in the current, results-driven and highly political organisational climate in which we operate, being true to yourself and aligned with your own values, emotions, purpose and motivations is not always easy. It requires strength of character and personal courage.

Personal courage: Leaders can learn to be authentic. They need to use their personal courage to be honest and open about confronting their life stories, roots and experiences - the positive as well as the negative ones. This is a crucial step in authentic leadership development and may mean that the leader has to reveal not only his/her strengths but also some of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This may seem risky. However this is what makes leaders more credible with their followers. Followers trust authentic, believable and humane leaders, not their carefully protected images.

The ethical and moral dimension

There is a clear ethical and moral dimension in demonstrating and developing authentic leadership. Because authentic leaders are clear about their values, goals and motives, they understand the meaning of what they do and they lead for "higher purpose".

Having invested a lot personally, authentic leaders care about what they do and work towards long-term and sustainable results. But they also understand the impact they have on others, take responsibility for it and care for people as well as for results. This is one of the most important and appealing components of authentic leadership and has important implications for development.

Organisations need to factor in a sense of ethics, responsibility and care when developing leaders and again this is not something that will happen overnight. Bear this in mind when selling, purchasing and designing leadership development interventions and adopt a long-term focus and sustainable solutions, rather than look for short-term symptomatic fixes.

Relational aspects: followers, teams and organisational context

There are no leaders without followers. Leaders are authentic and truly powerful when followers choose to follow them. As authentic leadership is relational in nature, fostering authentic relationships constitutes a core component in authentic leadership development. Relationship development is an ongoing dynamic process but it starts with self-leadership. This is what often surprises leaders beginning their leadership development who expect to start their learning with units on how to manage others. It is only later that they realise why this is not the case. George (2007) writes "the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself. When you can lead yourself through the challenges and difficulties, you will find that leading others becomes relatively straightforward. By being authentic and true to your beliefs, you can unite people around a common purpose and a set of values and empower them to step up and lead".

However, relationships do not exist in isolation. Leaders lead not only individuals but also teams and they do so within an organisational context. Building personal relationships with followers is not enough. In order to be effective, leaders must understand the dynamics of groups that their followers belong to and other contextual variables that affect their functioning. This again is a long, ongoing and intricate process but it is crucial in enabling leaders to transform groups into high performing teams.

An organisational context provides background to all the leadership interactions and can moderate opportunities for authentic leadership development. Leaders must become their authentic selves in that context, read it accurately and add value to it by reshaping it and simultaneously promoting a positive organisational climate to enable their own growth and the growth of their followers. To achieve this, leaders have to work on sharpening not only their cognitive, perceptual and strategic skills, to allow them assess and understand the situation, but also their adaptive and behavioural skills to be able to deal with the situation at a practical level.


As the authentic leadership framework emerges, it becomes obvious that authentic leadership development is a long and complex process that will not be given justice in a standard training programme. It involves not only gaining self awareness but also developing a sense of meaning, responsibility and ethics as well as building honest and authentic relationships. Avolio and Gardner (2005) do not see authentic leadership development as a programme unless it is labelled "a life’s programme".

Developing authentic leadership does not happen overnight. It is a continuous process demanding a high level of commitment and effort from the leader as well as the support of the organisation. However, the leaders who commit to this kind of development will be worth following.

Previous leadership articles from Kenexa Leadership:



Margot Zielinska is a consultant at Kenexa Leadership, the leadership development specialist. She can be contacted at [email protected].



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