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What Is Authentic Leadership? What Does It Mean To Be An Authentic Leader?

Authentic leadership is a theory and practice emphasizing the authenticity of leaders—their self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, and interpersonal developmental processes (Northouse, 2018).

Authentic leadership is based on the assumptions that leadership attributes can be cultivated, affected by critical life events, and developed over a lifetime (Northouse, 2018). As an area of leadership study, authentic leadership is still in the formative stages of development (Northouse, 2018). While there are various descriptions, for example, pursuing a strong sense of purpose, knowing own values, establishing relationships, demonstrating self-discipline, leading with heart, being self-aware, having an internalized moral perspective, etc., there is no single accepted definition for authentic leadership (Gardner et al, 2011; George, 2003; Northouse, 2018). In addition, some of its concepts and practical applications require further development or examination (Avolio et al., 2009; Gardner et al., 2011; Northouse, 2018). George (2003), for example, identified five dimensions of authentic leadership approach: pursuing a strong sense of purpose, knowing own values, establishing relationships, demonstrating self-discipline, and leading with heart, i.e., having compassion, empathy, sensitivity to other people's experiences, cultures, and backgrounds (as cited in Northouse, 2018, p. 200). Walumbwa et al. (2008) also identified self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and leaders' relational transparency with followers as key dimensions of authentic leadership. (p. 94 as quoted in Northouse, 2018, p. 203).

The Purpose of this Post

Drawing from the work of some of the leading scholars in the field (i.e.: Avolio et al., 2005, 2009; Gardner et al., 2005, 2011; and George, 2015), I will describe authentic leadership and explore the concept of authenticity in the context of people's development as a leader. I will also outline how authentic leadership relate with other areas of leadership study such as transformational leadership, servant leadership, and Theory U. My primary goal is to identify some of the factors related to well-being that enable women to discover their authenticity in their roles as leaders. These factors include self-awareness, self-acceptance, consistency, self-discipline, and leader-follower relation. (I will write more about well-being and discuss its definitions and implications in my future posts.)

Defining Authentic Leadership

As I mentioned previously, there is no single definition for authentic leadership. Following are definitions provided by Luthans and Avolio (2003) and Walumbwa et al. (2008), which are commonly cited in leadership literature and research (Gardner et al., 2011):

Authentic leadership is a process that draws from both positive psychological capacities and a highly developed organizational context, which results in both greater self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviors on the part of leaders and associates, fostering positive self-development. (Luthans and Avolio, 2003, p. 243)

Authentic leadership is a pattern of leader behaviour that draws upon and promotes 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 self-development. (Walumbwa et al., 2008, p. 94, as cited in Northouse, 2018, p. 203)

Additionally, Northouse (2018) outlines three ways of defining authentic leadership, specifically, from an intrapersonal perspective, as an interpersonal process, and as a developmental process. The intrapersonal perspective focuses on leaders and their experiences (p. 198). From this perspective, authentic leadership is shaped by leaders' interpretation of their inner world and life experiences (p. 198). The interpersonal process perspective, on the other hand, focuses on the interactions between leaders and followers and posits authentic leadership emerges from these interactions (p. 198). The developmental process perspective considers both the intrapersonal and interpersonal processes of leaders as well as their pattern of behaviour (p. 198). This perspective emphasizes the importance of leaders' positive psychological qualities and strong ethics (p. 198).

Discovering and Developing Authenticity in Our Role As Leaders

Authentic leadership emphasizes the authenticity of leaders. However, what exactly is authenticity?

To be great, be whole: nothing that's you

Should you exaggerate or exclude.

In each thing, be all. Give all you are

In the least you ever do.

The whole moon, because it rides so high,

Is reflected in each pool. (Pessoa, 1955)

Based on their literature review and research on leadership, Gardner et al. (2011) states that authenticity in the context of leadership involves self-awareness, balanced processing, relational transparency, and internalized moral perspective. Similarly, George (2015) asserts that authenticity is built on our self-awareness (which includes self-compassion, understanding and acceptance of our vulnerabilities and fears) as well as our ability to discern our passion and connect our life experiences and challenges with the goals we are currently pursuing. In essence, authenticity requires us to understand our self (this includes own thoughts, feelings, motives, beliefs, values, preferences, and desires), accepting our weaknesses and strengths, being open and honest in our relationships with others, and acting based on our true preferences, values, and desires. In the context of leadership, authenticity is about knowing and acting in accord with our true self and purpose. It is about embodying and expressing our well-being. Luthans and Avolio (2003) discuss authenticity in relation to leaders' confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience. When faced with challenging situations, authenticity is also about honouring our values and convictions instead of compromising them to external inputs, expectations, or pressures (Northouse, 2018, p. 200). Scharmer (2007) refers to this as "presencing" or connecting to our source of inspiration and will, "the place of silence" where their inner knowing can emerge (p. 8).

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save. (Oliver, 1986)

What enables women to discover their authenticity in their roles as leaders?

Authenticity can be cultivated and shaped by people's life experiences and their interpretation of these experiences (Northouse, 2018). However, what enables women to discover their authenticity in their roles as leaders? Scharmer (2007) offers the U journey, which involves a process of "letting go of non-essential aspects of self", "accessing one's inner knowing" through observation, retreat, and reflection, and letting come or opening oneself to the new "aspects of their highest possible future self" (Scharmer, 2007).

The U journey described by Scharmer (2007) is similar to knowing our "True North", which also offers a way for discovering and developing one's authenticity (George, 2015):

True North is your orienting point—your fixed point in a spinning world—that helps you stay on track as a leader. It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values, and the principles you lead by. It is your internal compass, unique to you, that represents who you are at your deepest level. (p. 1)

George (2015) notes that discovering our True North and authenticity requires having a high level of self-awareness and self-acceptance, which involve sharing our vulnerabilities:

Your emotional outbursts usually result when someone penetrates to the core of what you do not like about yourself, or still cannot accept...By accepting yourself just as you are, you are no longer vulnerable to these hurts. You are prepared to interact authentically with others who come into your life...Free of having to wear a mask, you can focus on pursuing your passions. That leads you on the path to self-actualization... (p. 100)

Discovering our True North and authenticity also involves seeking other people's honest feedback (George 2015). Like "presencing" and praying, it requires an opening of our mind and heart (Scharmer, 2007). It "isn't a contest but a doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak."(Oliver, 2007)

Authentic Leadership and Leader-Follower Process

In the leader-follower process seeking, giving, and receiving honest feedback demand compassion, openness, respect, and trust from both sides—or what Scharmer (2007) describes as generative listening, a level of listening that requires opening of one's mind, heart, and will. The leader-follower process of communication and generating feedback require active engagement from both sides and overcoming their own resistance or the three enemies that Scharmer (2007) describes as voice of judgment, voice of cynicism, and voice of fear. The process also requires leaders to be consistent and self-disciplined (George, 2015). Leaders who act according to their expressed beliefs, values, and morals even in difficult situations offer predictability, reliability, and stability for followers, thereby, developing trust of their followers (George, 2003, p. 12 as cited in Gardner et al., 2011; George 2015). Given this trust, authentic leaders are able to motivate their followers and promote positive outcomes, for example, high levels of performance, follower satisfaction and commitment (George, 2015).

Developing Capacity For Authentic Leadership

The leader-follower process is essential for developing women's capacity for authentic leadership. While discovering and developing our authenticity through our own personal processes and practices are also essential, we all know that as women leaders we do not operate in a vacuum. To achieve a common goal, women leaders need followers just as followers need leaders. Considering the requirements for leader-follower reciprocity and other interpersonal developmental processes combined with relevant aspects of related leadership theories, authentic leadership presents a promising theory and approach for facilitating real and sustainable transformation whether this is at the individual, communal, societal, or global level.

Authentic Leadership, Transformative Leadership and Servant Leadership

As a woman leader, authentic leadership informs my philosophy and practice of leadership. Authentic leadership shares similar ideas with some of the leadership approaches and theories that I would like to explore further. In particular, it shares the same premise as the skills approach and other leadership theories such as transformational leadership, servant leadership, transformative leadership, and Theory U that leadership can be learned and developed. Similarly, authentic leadership has a moral dimension, which expects leaders to know what is right and good for their followers and society and requires them to act accordingly (Northouse, 2018). I believe it is essential for women leaders to have high moral characters—to know what they stand for, where to anchor themselves when they encounter challenging situations and difficult choices. I also believe that women leaders must know how to embody and express their well-being.

Authentic Leadership and Leader-Follower Relations

Authentic leadership also reflects my ideas about leader-follower relations. Unlike leadership practices where leaders hold the power and exert influence on the followers, authentic leadership allows for a participatory and collaborative process of sharing information and making decisions (Avolio et al, 2009; Gardner et al., 2005). Equally important, it promotes mutual development of leaders and followers (Gardner et al., 2005; Luthans and Avolio, 2003).

Authentic Leadership Is About Embodying and Expressing Our Well-Being

Practicing authentic leadership can be a way for women leaders to connect with and express our well-being. Authentic leadership like well-being involves a deeply personal and intentional process of discovering our source, "True North", purpose, and connection with something bigger, beyond our inner world (George, 2015; Scharmer, 2007). I see the positive psychological qualities associated with authentic leadership such as confidence, optimism, hope, and resilience to be the same qualities required to make sense of being human and to live a well-lived life.

As outlined above, authentic leadership has several strengths; however, as a new leadership theory and practice, it also has its limitations. For example, it is unclear how the notions of positive psychological capacities, moral perspective, and justice inform authentic leadership and how authentic leadership contributes to "positive organizational outcomes" (Northouse, 2018, p. 209).


In summary, authentic leadership presents a theory and practice that emphasizes the authenticity of leaders, intrapersonal and interpersonal developmental processes, for example, acting consistently with one's expressed beliefs and values, developing self-awareness and self-acceptance and mutual development of leaders and followers. While authentic leadership has its limitations, it can integrate and build on relevant aspects of other leadership studies to further develop its concepts and practice. One of its criticisms, for example, is the lack of evidence for the ideas and practical applications presented by George (2015), which I cited frequently in my discussion about discovering and developing one's authenticity as a leader. I will also note the incompleteness of authentic leadership as a theory and practice in terms of looking at leadership with a gendered lens and considering the well-being and experiences of women leaders within patriarchal or masculine systems and structures (work contexts, etc.) I will write more about this in my future posts.

I see authentic leadership as a participatory and collaborative process where leaders and followers are actively engaged, supporting each other's development, sharing the decision-making, and contributing to the achievement of common goals.

Stay tuned!

Moving forward with my blog and newsletter, I would like to identify creative tools, activities, and/or practices that could support women leaders in their practice of authentic leadership, for example, arts-based approaches that can be used in deepening the self-awareness of women leaders and facilitating their development as authentic leaders. I will be sharing my findings here.

I will also be sharing my further learnings about Theory U and the U process described by Scharmer (2007) as well as the concept of True North described by George (2015) with the aim of exploring how they can support or be integrated in the tools, activities, and/or practices that I hope to identify for women leaders.

For now, I will conclude with the following quote as it summarizes the qualities of the authentic leader, the type of leader I wish all women leaders would become:

The authentic leader is confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, transparent, moral/ethical future-oriented, and gives priority to developing associates into leaders themselves. The authentic leader does not try to coerce or even rationally persuade associates, but rather the leader's authentic values, beliefs, and behaviors serve to model the development of associates. (Luthans and Avolio, 2003, p. 243)


What does being a leader mean to you?

What does authenticity mean to you?

In what ways can you practice authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership involves knowing and honouring our own values, for example the things that really matter to us.

What brings you job satisfaction?

What makes you happy at work and with the work that you do?


Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.

Avolio, B. J., Walumbwa, F. O. & Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research, and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 421-449.

Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2005). "Can you see the real me?" A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 343-372.

Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. Leadership Quarterly, 22 (6), 1120-1145.

George, B. (2015). Discover your true north. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Leavy, P. (2017). Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based Research, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches. New York and London: Guilford Press.

Luthans, F. & Avolio, B.J. (2003). Authentic leadership: a positive developmental approach. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, R. E. Quinn (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 241-258.

Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 197-226.

Oliver, M. (1986). The journey. In Dream work. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 38.

Oliver, M. (2007). Praying. In Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pessoa, F. (1955). Odes. Poetry, 87(1), 26. Retrieved from

Scharmer, O. (2007). Addressing the blind spot of our time: Executive summary of Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning. Retrieved from


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