What Is the Authentic Leadership Style? 3 Real-Life Examples

authentic leader

By Nicole Celestine

Being a great leader is no easy job.

Talented leaders must balance the input and needs of their followers while still ensuring the collective meets its.

They must carefully regulate their own behavior and emotions, recognizing these are contagious and can reflect on the image of their team.

Most importantly, skilled leaders ensure consistency between what they say and what they do, and take care to make decisions that allow them to sleep soundly at night.

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The few of us who’ve mastered this balancing act can be said to have mastered the art of authentic leadership. And although it may seem challenging, this empowering and open style of command is within reach for even rookie leaders.

What Is the Authentic Leadership Style?

Authentic leadership is

“a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both 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, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, and Peterson, 2008, p. 94

This definition combines many key aspects of authentic leadership identified by researchers, including:

  • The promotion of followers’ psychological capacities, such as resilience (Luthans & Avolio, 2003)
  • High self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-acceptance that facilitates openness and non-defensiveness with others (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005; Kernis, 2003)
  • Consistency between our values, beliefs, and actions (Walumbwa et al., 2008)
  • The use of high ethical standards to guide decision-making and behavior (May, Chan, Hodges, & Avolio, 2003)

Authentic leadership and emotional intelligence

The facets of an authentic leadership style overlap substantially with conceptualizations of emotional intelligence (EI). For instance, Goleman’s four-dimensional model of EI includes the component of self-awareness.

Further, this model includes various competencies that overlap with authentic leadership, such as confidence and transparency, which are similar to self-esteem and openness and aimed at facilitating positive interactions with others (Goleman, 1995; Miao, Humphrey, & Qian, 2018).

Indeed, meta-analytic research has confirmed that the authentic leadership style is significantly and positively related to EI and that high-EI leaders can better discern when it is most appropriate to employ the authentic leadership style (Miao et al., 2018).

The Theory and Model Explained

Leadership self-awareness

Leading theories of authentic leadership draw on a four-dimensional model of the concept (Neider & Schriesheim, 2011):

  • Self-awareness
    Understanding how you make meaning of the world and how that meaning-making process affects self-image over time; awareness of strengths, weaknesses, your multifaceted nature, and your impact on others.
  • Relational transparency
    Presenting your authentic self to others; promoting trust through disclosure, information sharing, and expression of true thoughts and feelings.
  • Balanced processing
    Objective analysis of all relevant data before making decisions; a willingness to solicit and consider views that challenge your own.
  • Internalized moral perspective
    Self-regulation guided by internal moral standards and values rather than external standards; behaving and making decisions consistent with these internalized values.

This four-factor model represents a major contribution to the study of authentic leadership and is a first step toward increasing its applications in practice through training and interventions.

10 Characteristics and Traits of Authentic Leaders

So what makes good, authentic leaders?

If a person possesses some of the following traits, they are likely to use the authentic leadership style effectively (Kotzé & Nel, 2017).

  • Consensus orientation
  • Skill at critical evaluation
  • Persuasiveness
  • Social skills/confidence
  • Innovation/forward thinking
  • Open expression and display of emotions
  • Behavioral consistency across people and situations
  • Optimism
  • Ability to self-regulate
  • Empathy and caring

Unsurprisingly, these characteristics overlap significantly with the various components of authentic leadership’s four-dimensional conceptualization. For instance, critical evaluation skills can aid with balanced processing when making decisions, while empathy can aid with relational transparency.

3 Examples of Authentic Leadership in Action

Authentic Leadership in Action

To help illustrate the various applications of authentic leadership, take a look at the following real-life examples drawn from interviews and case studies.

Authentic leadership in the workplace

One interview-based study exploring the intersection between work managers’ identities and authentic leadership highlights the challenges involved in balancing the authentic leadership style with your preferred leadership style (Nyberg & Sveningsson, 2014).

The managers in this study explained that they constituted a natural hub around which their workgroups and departments revolved. This meant they had a high level of impact on operational procedures and outcomes.

Consequently, the managers of this leader-centric organization found the principles of authentic leadership, which center around inclusion and worker involvement, to contrast with their natural approaches to leadership, which involved being forceful and dominant in decision-making and sometimes cutting collaborative processes short (Nyberg & Sveningsson, 2014).

Therefore, depending on a manager’s natural style of leading, what we consider an ‘authentic’ leadership style may not be authentic in the sense that it is inherent or feels natural to a given leader.

Authentic leadership in healthcare

One study of skilled nursing facility administrators found that authentic leadership can be leveraged to bring about healthier and safer practice environments for nurses and their patients (Penrod, 2017).

Among the four dimensions of authentic leadership noted as important, internalized moral perspective was mentioned most often by the study’s interviewees (95%). In particular, administrators who maintained a genuine positive attitude, a willingness to ‘get their hands dirty,’ and regularly demonstrated appreciation for their employees’ work drove higher levels of job satisfaction.

Likewise, an internalized belief in the importance of patient safety among administrators would translate into better formal and informal training regarding safety procedures (Penrod, 2017).

A look at authentic leadership in education

Authentic leadership shown by principals and other education leaders can be especially powerful during challenging times of change.

One study conducted in Thailand followed the principal of a small primary school 100 kilometers west of Bangkok. Principal Somchai was recognized as an illustrative case of someone who effectively used the authentic leadership style to navigate the impact of over 20 years of nationwide educational reform (Kulophas & Hallinger, 2021).

When interviewed, Principal Somchai expressed a strong belief in involving teachers and parents in decision-making. This was reflected in the frequency with which he formally and informally engaged teachers, parents, and local community members to gather views and input on decisions.

He also noted the importance of being transparent when planned activities didn’t work out and would personally take on extra work during busy periods. Taken together, these actions motivated teachers’ engagement, reduced turnover, and nurtured a family-like atmosphere within the school community (Kulophas & Hallinger, 2021).

Pros and Cons of the Leadership Approach

The most appropriate style of leadership to use in any situation highly depends on the context in which a leader and team are working. Therefore, the authentic leadership style has pros and cons in different situations.

Pros of the authentic leadership style

Research has identified a combination of positive relational and performance-based outcomes associated with authentic leadership. In particular, authentic leadership has been shown to increase trust and work engagement while also facilitating more effective conflict management (Fotohabadi & Kelly, 2018; Hassan & Ahmed, 2011).

Further, authentic leaders are more aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and values, so they tend to exhibit greater social awareness and manage relationships more effectively (Pereira, 2015).

Cons of the authentic leadership style

One downside of the authentic leadership style is that it is often inappropriate in high-risk and emergency situations.

Take, for example, the commander of a submarine who is trying to ensure their crew remains undetected. Upon learning of an approaching unidentified vessel, it would be inappropriate to stop and build consensus around the most appropriate course of action as per the authentic leadership style.

Rather, this leader should adopt a commanding or directive leadership style to direct the rest of their team to take evasive action before it is too late (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2013).

Additionally, research has shown that organizations may see diminishing returns from the authentic leadership style when it comes to innovation. This is because the apparent moral superiority of these leaders can inadvertently communicate that innovative suggestions are not needed because the leader already knows best (Černe, Sumanth, & Škerlavaj, 2016).

A Take-Home Message

The first step to becoming an authentic leader is to know thyself.

From this place of genuine understanding about your own values, limitations, and strengths, you’ll be in a better position to hear and integrate the perspectives of those you lead. You’ll also be better able to weigh up decisions and take action in ways that align with your values and those of the collective you represent.

We hope this article has given you a better understanding of the authentic leadership style and inspired you to strengthen your own leadership capabilities. And be sure to let us know in the comments if you’ve tried any of the exercises listed or explored the further reading.

*Nicole Celestine is a behavioral scientist and writer based in Perth, Western Australia

*This article first appeared on the positivepsychology.com website

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