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Intro to Authentic Leadership: Definition & Strategies

You’ve probably heard the term ‘authentic leadership’ being thrown around with increasing frequency, but you’d be forgiven for wondering what it actually means, and why it’s worth paying attention to.

Is it about ethics? Increasing productivity? Giving your business a PR boost? Or some combination of all 3?

In this post, we’ll look at the real meaning of authentic leadership, why it matters, and some of the different ways you can put it into action in your business:

Title image: 'What is Authentic Leadership?'

What is Authentic Leadership?


So, what does it really mean to be ‘authentic’ in a leadership role? Let’s look at the meaning and development of the term, before we reveal 10 inspirational traits of those who put ethical behaviour at the core of their leadership style.

A small idea with a big meaning

Part of the problem in understanding what we mean by authentic leadership is the confusion that surrounds our perceptions of the characteristics of those in a leadership role. For example, if we accept the unrealistically narrow view that an effective leader is simply one who exerts influence then, logically, we must also accept that this does not necessarily mean that there is any correlation between position within the company’s hierarchy and leadership.


Many people within an organisation have the ability to exert influence; positive and negative. Consequently, the characteristics of the authentic leader must include more than the ability to influence others.


“I think effective leadership is always about being authentic to who you are, and being authentic to the people you work with. I think if you can convey that, and that is about commitment to a goal, commitment to a project, and you can also convey empathy and support for those who you are working with, those to me are the things that make leadership effective. I think when you try to lead from a position where you don’t feel as though you’re authentic, or it doesn’t represent your views or your values or those of the organisation, that’s often when leadership goes astray and we get the, what I often refer to as, the “dark side” of leadership coming out.”

Dr Ian Heywood, MBA Programme Director, University of Aberdeen


The concept of “authentic leadership” embraces fundamentally sound, timeless principles that reflect many of the examples of good practice we find in contemporary business behaviours: integrity, self-awareness and consistency.


The authentic leader’s approach should be inclusive, intended to encourage the building of positive relationships that will enhance the performance of the individual and teams within the workforce. This can be achieved by fostering an atmosphere of openness where employees are recognised for their contribution and any success is shared.  


The history of authentic leadership


The term itself was coined by Harvard Business School professor, Bill George, first appearing as the title of his book on the subject of leadership in 2003. Essentially, George suggested that authenticity in a leadership role means that the individual must be genuine; a true reflection of their core beliefs and values and not merely a replica of someone else’s leadership persona.


This requires the leader to be self-aware, recognise their strengths and weaknesses, establish their own identity, be empathetic and take responsibility for the effect they and their actions have on others… on a full-time basis.


This last point is crucial because, to warrant the title “authentic leader”, the individual cannot slip in and out of the role or compartmentalise their day to enable them to adopt separate work and home personas; despite any temptation to adapt their personality to suit the demands of their position.


“A leader without integrity, without an ethical base, is going to be seen as too easy to influence, as having no views of their own. We can all think of a very pragmatic politician, perhaps, who will change their mind just to win votes and, as managers, we mustn’t fall into that trap. We need to know where we’re coming from, what we’re trying to achieve, and where our ethical guidelines are, where things that we are not willing to do, places we’re not willing to go because they’re outside of what we believe is the right way to work, to operate, to treat people”.

Mark Whittington, Senior Lecturer in Accountancy, University of Aberdeen


Therefore, we can deduce that authentic leaders are those who bring themselves, not a version of themselves, to the workplace; and this will manifest itself in a variety of ways…


10 Qualities of an Authentic Leader


The following ten key characteristics will be evident in the behaviour of the authentic leader:

1. Experience

Demonstrates understanding and insight based on their personal experience; this creates empathy and inspires trust.

2. Self-awareness

Prepared to reflect on their actions and decisions, and examine their strengths and weaknesses objectively; this reinforces the spirit of openness and the genuine desire to create an empathetic workforce.

3. Transparency

Encourages open communication; this transmits a willingness to share failures and weaknesses as well as successes and strengths, and reinforces the empathetic nature of the leader/worker relationship.

4. Integrity

Shows strength of character by remaining true to their word and keeping promises; this inspires trust and earns respect.

5. Consistency

Remains true to their principles and is consistent in their behaviour; again, this reassures others and inspires trust.

6. Focus

Concentrates on the long-term aims of the organisation and is not distracted by minor setbacks; this inspires confidence.

7. Listening skills

A consistently good listener who demonstrates an open-minded approach when confronted by views and opinions that do not match his or her own; this encourages openness and inclusiveness amongst the workforce.

8. Vision

Leads with clarity of purpose and vision, and communicates and reinforces these consistently; this inspires confidence and a sense of purpose among others.

9. Value

Encourages others to attain excellence in every aspect of their lives, to push themselves towards higher professional and personal goals; this encourages self-confidence in others and adds value to the organisation.

10: Success

Not only recognises the contribution of the individual and the accomplishments of the team, but shares any achievement or success with the workforce as a whole; this reinforces the idea that everyone is part of the organisation and has the capacity to make a significant contribution to its success.


In truth, none of this will come as a revelation to the majority of staff within an organisation; people know when their leaders are good… or bad. Sometimes an organisation will promote the wrong person for the wrong reasons.


For example, an employee who is promoted to a leadership role because they have achieved short-term targets, but shows a lack of professional integrity, may influence others to adopt similar strategies. Ultimately, this will undermine the ethos of the organisation and may prove fatal for the company.


“I think authenticity is the single, most important part. If someone isn’t believed, if someone is perceived as being dishonest or not real, then they’ll never be able to lead. And so, we have to be authentic. Someone once said, “You can’t talk your way out of something you’ve behaved your way into”. And so, the way that we act and behave as leaders has to match what we say, and we have to be real and we have to be able to deliver that in a way that emotionally connects with the people that we work with. Do that, and we’re halfway to being great leaders”.

Professor Gary McEwan, CEO, Elevator UK


The Truth About Authentic Leadership

Assuming the responsibilities of a leadership position can be challenging, not only due to the pressures of your professional capacity, but also on a personal level. It can be even more demanding to lead authentically, but the concept is proving more popular than ever in today’s business world.

The popularity of authentic leadership has highlighted the dichotomy faced by those in leadership roles throughout their careers; having to resort to a course of action that is contrary to their core beliefs due to the nature of their post.


Having to behave in a manner that is at odds with their principles can result in leaders adopting separate personas, each appropriate to a different, demanding situation or context.


As a leader, presenting your authentic self within an organisation can be a daunting prospect. Exposing publically what you perceive to be your personal values, core beliefs, strengths and weaknesses within a professional, industry and/or workplace culture that supports opposing views can be intimidating and the pressure to conform tempting.


The result can be a particularly vicious circle, whereby leaders find themselves acting in a duplicitous manner, undermining what they believe to be their core convictions and true self by presenting one or more potentially contradictory personas in the workplace.


While this pragmatic approach may enable the leader to avoid personal confrontation and satisfy the demands of colleagues and the organisation in the short term, in the longer term those who do not aspire to lead from an authentic standpoint will undoubtedly develop a negative reputation of dishonesty and deceitfulness.  


Why is authentic leadership difficult to achieve?


This style of leadership involves maintaining your core values while attempting to consolidate the behaviours of a wide variety of individuals. The challenge lies in sustaining and projecting your sense of self amongst a group of people with potentially contradictory beliefs, motivations and objectives, and then achieving your vision in line with the goals of the organisation without losing their respect.


“A top tip for being a leader would absolutely be to treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself.”

Neil McLennan – Senior Lecturer and Director of Leadership Programmes, School of Education, University of Aberdeen


Essentially, the key requirements for anyone aspiring to authentic leadership are laudable: self-awareness, honesty, integrity, empathy, vision, self-regulation and consistently ethical behaviour.


In practice, these elements should manifest themselves in your behaviour in a leadership role. Your beliefs and values have conspired to make you who you are. The authentic leader will aim to act accordingly at all times, but will also be prepared to recognise when and why they are tempted to pursue an alternative course and take remedial action to realign their beliefs with their behaviour.


“My tip would be to act, not to react… So to act means to be creative, means to respond… it means to be novel. So you are responding to change, to differences, to not knowing, in a creative way. Rather than reacting, which means […] you are acting based on stimuli and you back into an… unconscious stimuli… you know, push this button, this is the answer you’re going to get. So it’s really becoming aware of [that], and building that consciousness again, that conscious decision making of acting rather than reacting.”

Norton Bertram-Smith – Director and Owner of Authentic Leadership Training Organisation, OnPurpose


5 Expert Authentic Leadership Strategies

It is considerably easier to list the attributes and describe the behaviour of the authentic leader than it is to apply the degree of rigour required to achieve this type of leadership status to our own actions.

However, by adopting the following strategies, you will be better placed to realise your goal of becoming an authentic leader:


Learn from your role models

It will be useful to identify those who you consider to be authentic leaders and observe how they behave in their role. Analyse the strategies they use in particular situations and, if applicable, incorporate these in your own approach. If you can identify potential role models who are willing to meet with you personally, you may be able to compare interactions and strategies and discuss their effectiveness.


Stick by your decisions

If your behaviour is driven by good moral standing, be confident in your actions. Even if your decisions come up against scrutiny, they have a base in ethical principles, which is honourable – authentic leadership relies on it.

Part of leading authentically is the willingness to reflect on how you have behaved in difficult and stressful situations and to ascertain how faithfully you adhered to your personal values and convictions.


Share and listen

Lead by example and encourage others within your organisation to be authentic by inviting them to contribute their thoughts and opinions on a regular basis.

Aim to create a non-recriminatory forum where your fellow workers can express themselves freely.


“My top tip is very, very simple, and that is to be a listening leader. I think one of the biggest failings of many leaders is that they don’t listen enough and if you can listen to what people are saying, whether they’re your employees, or your customers or your colleagues, if you can do that, and empathise with that and not always accept what you hear, but be prepared to consider it objectively, then my tip is to be a listening leader.”

Dr Ian Heywood – MBA (Global) Programme Director, University of Aberdeen


Be constructive

In situations where your position requires it, aim to keep any criticism of others constructive and strive to be diplomatic rather than emotional when dealing with sensitive issues.

Potentially difficult situations, such as the delivery of negative feedback, are best dealt with in a face-to-face context. 


Remain realistic

As you are working towards achieving a completely authentic leadership style, you will undoubtedly be beset by situations that result in you deviating from your goal.

However, as a practitioner who is self-aware and self-regulating, you will recognise your shortcomings in these instances and be able to adjust your behaviour and plan alternative strategies for dealing with them in the future.


An Insider View: Marketing Specialist Ann Robb


Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Marketing Mentor and Digital Marketing specialist Ann Robb has spent over 20 years helping a wide variety of businesses grow, both as a marketing expert and entrepreneur.

Ann operates as a mentor for business, advising where improvements can be made and planning campaigns that solve business problems, from up-to-the-minute web analytics to more traditional media.

Here, she offers her expert insight into business leadership:


How do you define leadership?

I see a leader as someone who can lead by example and has the integrity to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult and unpopular.

What do you find most challenging in a leadership role?

I think that really depends on the organisation or the business that you’re in, and I think it’s very different for a small/medium size business as opposed to a corporate. I’ve worked in both; I’ve worked in big corporate organisations and I’ve also set up and run my own businesses and I think the challenges are very different for leaders in both of those.

In my experience, in small/medium size companies, it’s always around resources – you just don’t have enough money! You might have great ideas, but you might not be able to have the team because you can’t afford them; you can’t afford the resource.

And it’s about trying to separate yourself from doing the day-to-day chores, as you have to do in a small business, and leading that business at the same time. So I think that’s the biggest challenge for a small/medium size company.

For a large corporate, I think the challenges are changing, and I think this is the effect of digital disruption. Lots of large organisations are built on processes and governance and stuff like that and digital has transformed everything.

It’s changed at such a pace that I don’t think large corporates can keep up, so I think the biggest challenge in leadership for corporate organisations is digital disruption and their lack of ability to move and change quickly and be agile.

And that’s where I think small companies have an advantage, but then they have the disadvantage of not having the resources. So, I always think that maybe leading within a mid-sized company’s got to be the perfect situation because hopefully the company will have some of the resources, but also be agile enough to make changes as and when they are needed.

What is your top leadership tip? I think my top tip has to be: be authentic, and be you, and be very self-aware. You’re normally put into a leadership role because you’ve put yourself there, because you’ve set up a company, or because other people have the confidence in you to put you in that job.

So just be yourself, don’t try and be someone else or try and transform yourself into someone else because it just doesn’t work, and I think other people can see through that.As long as you’re self-aware and understand what your strengths are, you can play to them and acknowledge your limitations. Then you can use your leadership role to make sure that you surround yourself with the people that can help make the organisation and the business better.


6 Tips for Putting Authentic Leadership into Practice


As an authentic leader, you’ve identified your core values, you’ve decided on your vision for the organisation and you’ve established yourself amongst the workforce as someone who has integrity.

The next step is to put them into practice as part of your business strategy. Here’s how to initiate your authentic leadership style successfully in the workplace:

1: Share your vision

Project yourself into the future. Don’t go too far; aim for a point three or four years from now. Identify the key elements in your organisation, for example: staffing profile, products, revenue, location, customer profile and key markets.

Starting with these, physically sketch out in a diagram how you think your organisation will look in the future. Share this with your colleagues and invite them to add to or amend your original version. Not only have you shared your aspirations as an authentic leader, but you’ve invited others to contribute to it and thus created a shared vision.

2: Dare to delegate

Start to relinquish control. If we can agree that authentic leadership is about influencing behaviours and listening to others, it follows that delegating responsibility will be a key trait of the successful leader.

This can be accomplished by identifying areas of weakness within the organisation and recruiting experts who will facilitate the vision, and work with you without undermining your leadership. 

3: Make strengths your focus

Although you will be required to identify weaknesses and have a plan in place to deal with them, it is also a good idea to focus on improving the existing strengths of current employees.

This will have a positive effect on morale and reinforce the notion that everyone is contributing to any success enjoyed by the organisation.

4: Don’t kill with kindness

While it is sensible to be diplomatic when delivering negative criticism to an employee, in the case of outright dismissal, the best course of action is to be brief, concise and clear.

Deliver your message with sensitivity, but do not attempt to mitigate an unpleasant situation by entering into a lengthy discussion or debate about your decisions.

5: Cater to your clients

As an authentic leader, you will encounter many potential distractions in the course of your career.

By focusing on the needs of your clients and how these will be met, you will be able to align the motivations within your workforce and the objectives of the organisation accordingly to create a unified vision and goal.

6: Value your value

As an authentic leader you will be self-aware and, as a result, self-critical.

While you should aim to identify your weaknesses through self-reflection in order to make improvements, it is more important to acknowledge your strengths and showcase these to your colleagues.

In order to generate respect from others, you must place value on yourself, your skills and your time.


 “Particularly in a difficult climate, most leaders will face challenges at one point and there’s a Japanese saying that I love which is: ‘fall down seven times, get up eight’. This is the essence of good leadership; to see things through to a conclusion, whatever hurdles or adversity you may face.”

Campbell Urquhart – Managing Director of White Cube Consulting


What Recruiters Want From Leaders


When pursuing a top leadership role, you will need to show that you are the strongest candidate for the position. So, what are recruiters really looking for?


Let us look at some insider tips from Campbell Urquhart, Managing Director of Aberdeen consultancy White Cube Consulting, about what recruiters really want to see from you.


Anyone who aspires to a leadership role must be able to evidence specific characteristics and capabilities to the recruiter. Essentially, the successful candidate is someone who is able to direct, advise, motivate and support those in executive positions across the company.


“From a behavioural perspective, I think some of the key areas or realisations we normally look for would be things like the ability to define and communicate a vision clearly and accurately.”


As such, you must possess exceptional communication, decision-making and interpersonal skills. You should be able to engender an ethos of professional excellence, as well as create a culture centred on high levels of personal and organisational values.


“I think strong communication skills are critical in any good leader. I think the ability to solve problems, maybe not so much creative thinking, but certainly a strong problem-solving ability, and analytical skills.”


The nature of the post will require a high degree of intellectual and operational flexibility to meet the ever-changing demands of business, a sound knowledge of financial management, an aptitude for risk assessment and the ability to analyse complex situations quickly, accurately and decisively.


What do top leadership roles really involve?

Not only does landing a leadership role such as ‘Chief Executive Officer’ mean that you have assumed responsibility for the development of the company’s vision and the business strategy that will deliver it, but you will also find yourself accountable for establishing and/or maintaining the company ethos.


“I don’t know a leader who isn’t involved in managing change – so good change management skills and I think a dogged determination and drive, enthusiasm, tenacity, that’s probably some of the main areas.”


In your role, you will be expected to nurture the current management team, mentor those with management potential and develop a coherent succession plan designed to support all critical areas of the business.


“From a recruiter’s perspective, when they’re looking at leadership positions, a lot really depends on the actual role. I’m a great believer in accurately defining the role and whether it’s technical competencies or commercial capability – I think that’s almost a prerequisite.”


Whatever senior management position you are aiming for, it is important to identify its requirements and showcase the range of skills needed to fulfil the role effectively.


We want to hear your own thoughts on leadership too. Do you have your own ideas of what it is, or what it means to your company? Let us know in the comments below.

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