A Complete Guide to Authentic Leadership

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Whether recently promoted to a leadership and management position or a longstanding leader of teams, you may find it challenging to describe precisely what it means to be a “good” leader.

There are many components of a successful leader, yet we often list the more obvious terms like ‘inspirational’, ‘confident’ and ‘charismatic’. But what about being ‘authentic’?

What is Authentic Leadership

The term ‘Authentic Leadership’ was used by Bill George in the aptly named book, ‘Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value‘, which was released around the time of some jaw-dropping organisation scandals (Enron and WorldCom ). These corporate crimes provoked an outcry, prompting a strong wish for business leaders of substance – leaders that people could trust. In other words, ‘authentic leaders’.

Things haven’t changed much since Enron; even today, with the likes of VW and Mercedes lying about emissions and the BHS Pension scandal with Philip Green, employees and stakeholders are still crying out for leaders of substance.

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The qualities of an authentic leader

Harter’s (2002) definition in the Handbook of positive psychology, specifies that authenticity requires a person’s thoughts and feelings to be consistent with their actions. Someone who does not act in line with their values can be said to be discombobulated, a walking contradiction.

Authentic leaders are clear on their values, and people trust them because they are true to themselves, not acting out a part that they perceive they should be playing. Their modus operandi is “what you see is what you get”, some might say they are ‘comfortable in their own skin’.

When you are authentic, you are true to your values; people can trust that you will do what you say and that your behaviours will not deviate from what they expect from you. Your integrity is sound and never called into question, which creates trusting relationships and people who will follow wherever you go.

Above all, you will be very aware of your emotions and your behaviours, taking time to reflect and change where necessary. You’ll not need to use your positional power as you will influence people in the right way. People will be drawn to you and know that you will listen to them with the intent of understanding them, not judging.

Why do organisations need authentic leaders?

Research indicates that authentic leadership is the most significant predictor of employee job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and workplace happiness. Where authenticity is encouraged, employee production is thought to increase by  20% . What more do you need to know!

What makes an authentic leader?

According to Bill George, Authentic Leadership consists of four main components:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Relational Transparency
  • Balanced Processing
  • Strong Moral Code

#1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness in the context of authentic leadership is identical to that in emotional intelligence. According to Daniel Goleman self-awareness is made up of three main elements, namely:

  • Emotional awareness – knowing and understanding your emotions
  • Accurate self-assessment – your strengths and weaknesses
  • Self-confidence – understanding your self-worth

Top tips for improving your self-awareness

  • Meditate (Harvard Business Review says so);  slow down and examine your emotions. Think more deeply on how you felt in a particular situation. Why did you think this way? How did it affect your behaviour?
  • Build confidence by getting out of your comfort zone in incremental steps; if you are low on belief, it is often in an area that you have less experience or lack specific skills. The best way to build your confidence is to set goals and commit to action. For example, if you hate giving presentations, set a goal to deliver several in the next three months. Start by giving a presentation to a mirror, then to a friend or someone you trust. Make the presentations more challenging as you progress.
  • Complete psychometric assessments and self-evaluation inventories to better understand yourself;  there are many assessments that you can access online or pay for through providers. The key is in finding those that will be most helpful in your context. If you struggle to manage your time, find a time management inventory. Use the findings to plan your future development and home in on specific weaknesses.
  • Undertake regular ‘protected’ reflection; ask yourself “how did that go?”, “what was I feeling and how did I react?” (Journal) – Many leaders tout Journaling and protected reflection time as essential habits that underpin their success. That means blocking off time to examine how you are doing. Reflect on your emotions, your actions and behaviours before committing to positive action.
  • Get regular 360 feedback – up, down and sideways;  asking for feedback is one of the best ways to get an honest view of how people perceive you; this needs to be low risk for the person giving the feedback, so they need to trust that you will receive their feedback constructively. You don’t need a formal feedback tool or anything grand, just ask “how am I doing?”.

#2. Relational transparency

If an authentic leader demonstrates relational transparency, you are likely to see them openly sharing their thoughts and beliefs without displaying too much of their emotions; in essence, they exercise control over their feelings, maintaining just the right balance.

People with high levels of relational transparency will thrive by admitting their mistakes and building relationships grounded in trust and honesty. They will be very open with others about their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Tips for improving relational transparency

  • Keep a check on your emotions and think before acting in pressurised situations; this doesn’t mean that you stop feeling, but instead, you take your time to ensure your actions are congruent with your values. In emotional intelligence, this refers to the quality of self-regulation.
  • If you make a mistake own it, if you have a success share it; with mistakes, communicate what went wrong and go the extra mile by exploring how you would do things differently next time. Organisations and leaders of worth will see errors as an opportunity to learn, and they will value the fact that you made a decision or took action with the best of intentions. When something goes well, share the success with those who deserve it.
  • Show awareness of your weaknesses and blind spots by asking people for their opinions, ideas and expertise. When someone gives you an idea, do not be the person that always says “yeah I thought of that last week”; let the thought be theirs whether you did or didn’t think of it. You are not the Oracle, nor do you need to be!
  • The act of making an internal conversation external can help you to build relationships and trust.  When you have an internal emotional conversation going about your head (i.e. “I am so angry with Joe, I want to…) try to communicate this and show the math, for example, “Joe I find that frustrating because we have talked at length about this issue and we things don’t seem to have changed. What is it we can do to move forward from here?”.
  • In the case of Joe above, consider how you might need to do something to help this situation.  An authentic leader would probably ask Joe “can I do, or change, something to help”. By asking something like this, you signify that you are open to feedback and willing to listen to how you might improve.

You can diffuse many conflict situations through the act of voicing your emotions. By ‘showing the math’ going on in your head you are showing yourself to be open and transparent, and in doing so, you will gain credibility and trust with the person/people with whom you are communicating.

#3. Balanced processing

Great leaders, especially those who stand the test of time, are well balanced in processing the world around them. They will look at things with a calm and consistent approach, weighing up the information at their disposal before they act.

Someone strong in balanced processing will actively solicit opinions and feedback from people regardless of their position. They will not care whether you work under them, above them or at the same level in the hierarchy; if you can provide them with valuable insights on a ‘problem’ they are facing, they’ll ask you to weigh in.

When strong leaders commit to a decision, it will be fair and well-informed; they will discuss how they came to that conclusion, ‘showing you the math’.

Tips for improving balanced processing

  • Listen attentively and provide a balanced response;  the art of listening is an often-overlooked leadership attribute. How can you balance your response if you don’t listen attentively to what a person or group is saying? Next time you are in a meeting, forget any bias, truly listen to what people say and observe what they are doing (body language). Put your pen and laptop away during a meeting and see what happens if you listen more than talk, asking questions to understand, not interrogate.
  • Operate a weigh-in buy-in policy; when you are working with teams, it is essential that everyone feels like you hear their voice. You can’t fake this for long. To illustrate balanced processing, you can lay down the ‘weigh-in buy-in’ ground rules for your team.
  • Weigh-in means asking the whole team for their view on a topic before making a final decision; this allows all team members to share their opinions on a course of action. A quick tip: set a time limit on contributions in a meeting (or word count on written feedback) to manage time effectively and help with brevity.
  • The buy-in part of the rule requires that they only give their opinion on the proviso they get behind the final decision and without complaint. For weigh-in buy-in to work, you should explain your conclusion and ‘show your math’.
  • Show people your math; this means you explain how you came to make a decision. Trust grows when you can openly discuss your thinking process, even when a decision goes against a person’s thoughts on the matter. If there is a sound rationale, then it’s much easier to get a person on board with your thinking.

#4. Strong moral code

Possessing a robust moral code in the context of leadership means the consistent demonstration of decision making and relationship building through the prism of one’s moral values.

That means that a leader will use their values as a frame of reference for regulating their attitude, behaviour and actions. Someone with a strong moral compass will possess ethical foundations that are resistant to influence; that means they will stick to their guns when the alternative options mean they will stray from living their values.

Authentic leaders ensure their internal values reflect their behaviours; this self-management process enables authentic leaders to withstand external forces and influence that would otherwise affect their decision making.

Tips for developing a strong moral code

  • Undertake a values exercise to understand your internal values better;  there are some excellent books and activities you can use to define what matters to you. With a little soul searching, you can start to understand better what makes you tick; once you have determined your ‘code’, you can begin to choose your actions according to that compass.
  • Whenever you have to make a decision, consider how well the choices align to your value and moral code;  Ask yourself whether this decision will leave you feeling like you have cheated yourself. If the answer is yes, you are likely not exercising your moral code in this judgment; this isn’t a perfect world scenario, sometimes it’s not easy when making difficult decisions, but by considering your values first, you are more likely to come up with the right call for you.

What makes an inauthentic leader?

There are many warning signs for a leader acting in an inauthentic way, some more obvious and destructive than others. Here are some of the tell-tale signs:

  • They lack follow-through, i.e. they will say one thing and do another, or fail to deliver on promises
  • They won’t admit when they are wrong
  • They won’t be forthright over their weaknesses and will often try to cover them up as if they have only strengths
  • In a disagreement, they will come across as defensive and will ‘put their foot down’ to conclude a dispute
  • They will often leverage their position to gain commitment and influence others
  • They will sometimes try to feign ethical constraints and moral fibre, faking it for best effect

How can organisations develop authentic leadership?

Take a top-down, bottom-up approach; to develop a culture of authenticity start from the top. The first step is understanding the organisation’s ‘why’ (aka its reason for being) and creating a set of values that underpin this purpose. The values should be meaningful and easily translated into expectations for attitude, behaviour and outcomes. If the organisation desires to be seen as authentic, then their values should include this.

With values in place, it is time for senior leaders to signal their commitment and live them in all that they do. Values should be regularly discussed and be integral to recruitment, onboarding and performance-related processes, to name but a few. In short, they should be the driver for every decision and action taken within the business.

With commitment and processes in place, it is time to start developing people, giving them the knowledge, skills and understanding to live the values. With authenticity as a guiding principle, an organisation can use a range of methods to propagate the message of what it means to be authentic, including:

  • Internal marketing and branding
  • Internal coaching and mentoring
  • Training programmes at all levels
  • Well-being and support schemes
  • Counselling support
  • Reward, recognition and honest feedback part and parcel of the organisation’s culture
  • See mistakes as a chance for learning and growth
  • Organisation leaders can encourage authenticity in their employees by supporting them to be who they truly are. By celebrating diversity, leaders create a positive and supportive work environment where everyone can thrive. Employees across the organisation become more committed and willing to make a greater contribution.

Organisations can implement authentic leadership programmes; there are many training providers and educational institutes like TSW Training that can design and deliver leadership programmes based around authenticity.

Authenticity isn’t just for Leaders and Managers; it’s for any person who has contact with other people, including customers, suppliers, colleagues, bosses and more.

To Conclude

To ensure long-term happiness and willing contributions from employees, organisations need to be authentic at their very core. In turn, Leaders and Managers should learn to become more authentic and commit to ongoing reflection and development, supporting their teams to do the same.

Authenticity is a quality that you can develop, but it’s not an easy one to master. Becoming an authentic leader is a journey, not a destination. A consistent commitment to reflection and development will stand you in good stead.

Picture of Matthew Channell
Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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