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What Is Authentic Leadership?

Apr 23, 2020

Authentic leadership is a theory that is still forming in the business world. The idea of authentic leadership is that leaders are seen as genuine and “real.” This theory was created by Bill George in his book Authentic Leadership, published in 2003. This book takes on the entire theory that for leaders, being themselves is key to finding success. There are other important leadership skills, but being yourself helps you hone those skills. But does it work? It appears that the answer is yes. In fact, research shows that authentic leadership is the biggest predictor of an employee’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and workplace happiness. 

If you’re studying to become a business manager or leader, it’s important to understand the variety of leadership styles and theories, as well as understand authentic leadership and how being yourself could be your best option. Learn more about the authentic leadership theory, how you can develop it, and how it could benefit your team.

Authentic leadership characteristics.

Bill George’s Authentic Leadership model focuses on five distinct qualities that leaders that are authentic have, or may develop. It’s important to note that these aren’t unnatural characteristics that would make a leader less genuine, but are general ideas that leaders that are authentic fill with their own real intentions and beliefs. 

1. Sense of purpose.

Being a leader that is authentic involves demonstrating sense of purpose in order to seem real and approachable. Often, having a sense of purpose will come out as a sense of passion in practice. Passionate leadership involves caring about the work they are doing, and seeing leaders care makes employees more interested in caring about their work too. Leaders that have authenticity connect to their employees by showing interest in what they do, an interest in the large picture for the organization, and a passion for helping create success.

For example, leadership that shows authenticity is seen when a manager is assigned a new project from upper management, and will then hold a meeting for employees about this new role. They share the things that they are excited about, the structure of the project, and how everyone will be involved to create a good result. They demonstrate a good attitude to followers and show positive behavior as part of their leadership and passion. When an employee sees a passionate leader, they can catch the vision for what success can look like. A sense of purpose can look different based on the leader, but ultimately authentic leaders won’t need to fake a sense of purpose, they already are passionate about their work, and followers can see that in their behavior and in their practice. 

2. Distinct values.

Authentic leaders have specific values, and they don’t compromise on them for anything. This is also known as integrity. Integrity is crucial behavior for leadership to truly be successful. A leader behaves in a way that is always in line with their values, and expect high ethical standards and integrity in employees as well. Employees that see leaders who have values and things that are important to them will find respect and appreciation for their leader. The values of an authentic leader will vary based on their specific beliefs and morals, and they can be shaped by their company policy as well. Ethical leadership and authentic leadership goes hand-in-hand. This kind of leadership means that a manager will have their own personal standard of ethics and values that they will stay by no matter what. 

For example, an authentic leader has standards for how work is done and values that work is done correctly. They articulate regularly that they won’t tolerate shortcuts, they won’t compromise the rules, and that they themselves would never do that either. This can be in regards to work, coworker relationships, management, and more. Values are a crucial element to this kind of leadership. Followers see this ethical behavior and have trust in the organization as a whole, and begin to grow more self-aware of their own ethics and discipline.

3. Relationship building.

Authentic leaders build relationships with their employees and colleagues, and try to establish real connections with the people around them throughout the organization. They are willing to share things about themselves, communicate, and actually listen to others. Employees react better to managers who they believe really care about them and remember things about their lives. When an employee has a manager that they know actually cares about them and their life outside the office, they’re more invested in staying and having a good relationship with that manager.

For example, authentic leaders ask employees about their family. If an employee says they have to leave work early to take their spouse to the doctor, the manager can politely ask if everything is ok, if they need any help, or if there’s anything they can do. Management that is genuine and real will always listen, as well as make connections by sharing details of their lives as well. This can be as simple as talking about a game or show they watch, or go deeper in sharing about their children or family. Team members are much more likely to respect and like leaders who they can connect with in a real way. 

4. Goals and self-discipline.

Goals and self-discipline helps authentic leaders have the focus they need to move forward, no matter what comes their way. Consistent, cool, calm—that is the kind of leader you want during a storm or stressful times. Having goals in mind, and the self-discipline to get there is what makes an authentic leader easy to follow. Employees feel confident and calm when they see a leader that has that self-discipline as well. It also encourages their own self-awareness for their reaction and response, encouraging them to be calm and relaxed as well. An organization can thrive when leadership demonstrates patience and calm no matter what.

An authentic leader will communicate specific work goals to the team and then help provide a path and a plan to accomplish those goals. When things come in that add stress to the situation, authentic leaders don’t freak out or complain. They set the tone for their employees by keeping their cool and adjusting the plan when necessary, all the while encouraging the team that they can still reach the goal. Staying focus, adjusting when needed, communicating, and moving forward are key for authentic leaders.  

5. Genuine heart.

Authentic leaders are willing to show compassion to their employees. They are sensitive to the needs of others, and are willing to help them get what they need. This self-awareness is important to help team members really trust leadership. There are many positive effects that can come from this kind of self-awareness and leadership. This genuine heart helps employees feel that they are more than just a cog in the machine—they know that their leader sees them as a person and cares about them as a person. Mental health, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and sensitivity are all important to this kind of leadership.

An authentic leader shows their genuine heart, self-awareness, and compassion in many ways. One way they show this is by checking in on employees regularly. For example, during a busy time in the office an authentic leader will check in with their employees often for one-on-one time to ensure they are feeling OK, and find out if they can do anything for them. An authentic leader will make sure relationships between coworkers are going well, be sensitive to personal issues employees may be facing. Authentic leaders show genuine concern and ask because they want to know and help, not out of politeness. 

How leaders can develop their authenticity.

There are many things leaders can do to develop their authenticity and become more genuine leaders. Some of the things they can do include:

  • Explore their life story. Authentic leaders can learn about themselves as a good way to become more true to themselves. They need to process their experiences, understand the things they’ve gone through, and discover who they really are. When you dive into your own understanding of yourself, you’re better able to be yourself and let others see that side of you.

  • Take time to reflect. It’s important to take a step back in our 100-mile-an-hour world and be introspective. Taking time for reflection helps you understand what’s important to you, allowing you to be a better leader. Set aside time without your phone, task lists, and just reflect. Examine how you’re living your life and engaging with people around you to be more true to yourself. 

  • Seek out feedback. Authentic leaders know that they need to understand how other people see them in order to be effective. Seeking out honest feedback and then taking that feedback to heart is important for leaders to grow and develop. Authentic leaders want to get better and change for their employees, so surrounding themselves with people who will give honest feedback is key.

  • Understand their leadership style. Authentic leaders understand what kind of leadership styles comes naturally to them. They understand the situation they are in, the people they manage, and they can adapt their style as needed to fit that situation while staying true to themselves. Flexible styles aren’t inauthentic, because they come from a genuine place and are part of the compassion and heart leaders have to make the best connection with their employees. 

Critiques of authentic leadership theory.

There are lots of critiques for the authentic leadership theory. Some people argue that employees and followers don’t need an authentic person, they need a true leader. They need someone who is more than just themselves to lead and guide them. They argue that faking it until you make it is the key to a strong leader. While there are pros and cons to authentic leadership, overall the theory is focused on leaders being strong, but genuine and true to themselves which helps employees feel connected to and confident in them. Seeking to understand their flaws helps authentic leaders become stronger, and forging those real connections with employees helps them feel better about their work and their management.

Overall, the authentic leadership theory is a solid foundational way to be a good leader. Coupled with a business degree, authentic leadership can help you work to become the manager that you truly want to be. 

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