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Authentic Leadership – Authenticity Matters

written by Timothy T.C. So 18 July 2008

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.    Shakti Gawain

The word “authentic” emerges as a very popular term in various fields in the 21st century. In 2002, the same year that Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness was published, the field of management and leadership was rocked by the best-seller Authentic Leadership written by Bill George, a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.

What is Authentic Leadership?

8.jpgAccording to George’s definition in Harvard Business Review, authentic leaders are “good in their skin,” so good they don’t feel a need to impress or please others. They not only inspire those around them, they bring people together around a shared purpose and a common set of values and motivate them to create value for everyone involved.’ In the publication Positive Organizational Scholarship, Luthans and Avolio (2003) define authentic leadership as “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 “ (p. 243, italics mine).

The concept of authenticity originated back in the ancient Greeks, as captured by their timeless admonition to “be true to oneself.” In the field of positive psychology, authenticity is defined as “owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, preferences, or beliefs, processes captured by the injunction to know oneself” and “behaving in accordance with the true self” (Harter, 2002, p. 382). So the logic is simple: we can not imitate other people’s leadership. We can’t be another Jack Welch or Bill Gates by just doing what they did (we can learn from their experiences for sure), because what successful leaders have in common are not styles and images, but their substance and integrity. We have to then learn to be our own kind of leaders.


Here is a way of conceptualizing Bill George’s idea of authentic leadership into three main components:


  1. Self-Awareness – Understand YOURSELF, not just your organization
    Many leaders put effort into analyzing their organizations and developing strategies for them. They may know everything about the services or products from the organization, but then they may not know much about themselves – lack of self-awareness. One’s real self is the identity that can be found at one’s absolute core, and is not defined by one’s job, function, role or position. So how can one understand his/her real self? According to Kernis (2003), understanding one’s real self involves showing an understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and the multifaceted nature of the self. This includes gaining insights into the self through exposure to others, and being aware of one’s impact on other people. Knowing the authentic self requires an individual to be honest and have the courage to open up and examine one’s life story and experiences, both good and bad. As leaders do so, they become more humane. (See also Aren Cohen’s Self-Awareness: The PopEye Strength.)
  2. Develop and Practice Your Solid Values – not just the organization’s or someone else’s
    The values of authentic leaders are shaped by personal beliefs and convictions developed through life experience, development, and introspection.  The significance of your values does not lie in how you present them, but how you practice them, particularly under pressure. Leadership principles are values translated into actions. People can sense whether leaders behave according to the values they present to others. If not, the trust balloon is wrecked, because employees soon become cynical when leaders behave in ways inconsistent with their values. The trust balloon is dramatically hard to rebuild. Use your life stories and beliefs to shape the values by which you lead, and avoid your own narcissistic impulses.
  3. Lead with your heart – not just with your head
    7.jpg Leaders must transmit values and purposes to their subordinates using empathy, compassion, passion and courage. “Big-hearted” leaders are open, willing to share themselves fully with team members, and are genuinely interested in others. The respect that is essential to leadership is reciprocal. You won’t be able to get others’ respect if you do not listen with concern and respect to them. Great leaders cited by Bill George like Marilyn Carlson Nelson from Carlson, A. G. Lafley from P&G, and Howard Schultz from Starbucks share the capacity to inspire and empower others around a shared mission or purpose with their REAL empathy and concern. DO NOT let your heart and real self be devoured by your huge desk and high chair at office!

How does authenticity help with happiness and performance?

Organizational level: I strongly believe that leadership is vital for fully-functioning and optimized communities, business enterprises, or even governments. As a matter of course, an authentic approach to leading is shown to be related to positive outcomes in the human enterprise. These positive outcomes include higher levels of self-esteem, psychological well-being, enhanced feelings of friendliness, and elevated performance (Grandey, Fiske, Mattila, Jansen, & Sideman, 2005). As suggested by Ryan and Deci (2001), higher levels of employee well-being have positive impact on performance. Leaders who know and act based upon their true authentic values and strengths can lead and help others to do the same, thus bring about higher levels of well-being and performance in the organization.

Individual level: The pleasure of leading people to achieve a worthy goal is significant to authentic leaders, who are not simply trying to get people to follow them. Authentic leaders focus on their purpose rather than their ego. George once quoted what Peter Drucker said, “Leadership is not rank or privileges, titles or money. Leadership is responsibility.” The immense intrinsic satisfaction is a special reward to leaders who have empowered and developed others and thus made the world a better place.

I am going to end this article with a personal conversation I had with Professor Lee Ou Fan, one of the scholars of humanities that I respect most. At the end of his encouraging and heart-warming email last week, he gave me this advice: Be your own person, form your own opinions, and shape your own life.



Grandey, A. A., Fiske, G. M., Mattila, A. S., Jansen, K .J., & Sideman, L. A. 2005. Is “service with a smile” enough? Authenticity of positive displays during service encounters. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 96: 38-55.

Harter, S. (2002). Authenticity. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 382-394). London: Oxford University Press.

Kernis, M. H. 2003. Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14: 1-26.

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 (pp. 241–261). San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. 2001. On happiness and human potential: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52: 141-166.

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Senia Maymin 18 July 2008 - 8:50 am

This is my favorite article of yours so far! I especially like the three components:
* self-awareness
* practicing personal values
* heart and head

I had a difficult decision to make a few months ago, and a wise friend of mine said, make the decision that is going to be best for both your heart and head. And I liked thinking about it that way.

Timothy, what will you now do with these three components? WIll you research these as separated components for your PhD? What are the next steps for you with these?

My best,

Nick Ritchey 18 July 2008 - 9:47 pm


I agree wholeheartedly with Senia. Excellent writing and it is very relevant due to some difficult business negotiations yesterday.

Thank you!
~Nick Ritchey

Timothy T.C So 18 July 2008 - 10:13 pm

Thanks Senia –

There’re more thoughts and questions regarding this topic.
1.) Dr Howard Gardner from Harvard conceptualized multiple intelligences, apart of linguistic and mathematical intelligence which usually the university or job selection care much, we also have spatial, musical, intuitive, artistic, kinesthetic, abstract, interpersonal, and INTRAPERSOMAL intelligence.
—>Question: How Intrapersonal (understanding ourselves at deep level) or self awareness (which the term I used in the article) could really benefit on leadership and management is worth to have more empirical studies to offer us better insight?

2.) Since classic approaches to leadership are criticized that they do not provide adequate direction for the type of leadership that are needed in the settings in 21 century. In these 10, 20 years, many new leadership models have been proposed which brought about advancements in the field, e.g. Transformational leadership, Authentic leadership, Servant leadership, and Ethical leadership. These models, being seemingly different, might share a certain degree of similarities in their underlying concepts as they all have a more HUMANE focus on leadership.
—>Question: Would it be worthy and interesting to examine the similarities between these approaches, which might offer insights on a more general and comprehensive leadership model?

3.) More practically speaking, how we can adopt these theoretical concepts to be some practical guidance for leaders and managers would be another key issue.

As a scholar, certainly I would like to build a wider model or approach by using different concepts from occupational psych, positive psych, and other organizational behaviors concepts.. it will be a long way to go..

I am curious to know as an expert in decision making, how you would adopt these concepts on your PhD studies in decision making at Stanford which is going to be started very soon 🙂

Timothy T.C So 18 July 2008 - 10:53 pm

Thanks for your nice words Nick!

I will try to write more nice piece here in PPND~

Best, Timothy

Amanda Horne 19 July 2008 - 1:55 am

Hi Timothy

I agree with Senia about your three factors. These are powerful and compelling, and provide a rich source for discussion with leaders and executives.

Thank you!


D A Morton 19 July 2008 - 2:34 pm

I found your concepts of self awareness, practicing values and leading with heart compelling. However, I think the most compelling point of your article is the recognition that in attempts at developing one’s own abilities one cannot simply imitate other people’s leadership. I find this with virtually every new client I work with. You must find your own way. While Jack Welch, Bill Gates, A.G. Lafley and George Schultz might be recognized for having, to certain degrees, awareness, values and heart the one component that they all share without question is vision. Without vision the awareness, values and heart would have just made them all nice people. Leading is not a personality or way of being. It is a movement – a directing of effort toward an objective. Leadership is the recognition by others of an ability to create and inspire this movement. I do agree that awareness, values and heart play a major part in the implementation of a vision. They are a necessary component.

Wayne Jencke 19 July 2008 - 3:48 pm

Timothy, I agree wit D A Morton. Vision and drive are the critical leadership attributes. I think you are talking about self leadership as opposed to leadership.

One of the major criticisms of leadership theories is that they don’t extend the rhetoric in to reality. Many of the theories you talk about have minimal science supporting their efficacy. For example research shows that transformational leaders don’t in fact transform people – transformed people are attracted to them.

Don’t forget the science – its what distinguishes PP from pop psychology

Dave Shearon 20 July 2008 - 5:15 pm

Wayne & DA, let me test your hypothesis that leadership requires vision. Amy Wrzesniewski has studied job orientations. She found that in both hospital orderlies and university administrative assistants, some saw their work as a job, some a career, and some a calling. Those who saw it as a calling saw it as encompassing more and they did more. The hospital orderly might see herself as part of the healing team and go out of her way to learn the names of patients, interact with them, do little things appropriate to each patient to brightern his day and inspire hope toward healing. Assume a set of teams with “job” orderlies and another set with “mission” orderlies. Swap the orderlies between the two sets of teams, and is it not possible that the performance of the teams, on average, might change. I suppose you could say that the “mission” orderlies had a bigger vision for themselves, but that really seems closer to what Timothy was saying than to the kind of vision you are suggesting for positional leaders.

Timothy T.C So 22 July 2008 - 8:40 pm

Thanks for all these discussions, they are indeed very provocative. Here are some of my personal thoughts in response to your arguments:

– To me, business and life would be much easier if leadership was just a list of simple rhetorical rules a model that could be tested scientifically. This is a difficult topic and it is never easy to find a complete answer, but I believe every scholar who put their every effort on forming different conceptual theories and running empirical tests on them has tried their best to offer a broader and different perspective for better understanding leadership and its effectiveness, and benefiting the commercial setting as well as society as a whole.

– There are some recent scientific supports on the concept of Authentic Leadership (AL) that I mentioned. For example, Fred el. al (2008) have published a study in the Journal of Management in Feb which cross-culturally tested a theory-based measure of AL, Authentic Leadership Questionnaire [ALQ], in China, Kenya, and the United States, where constructs like leader’s self-awareness, relational transparency, and value etc are covered in the questionnaire. Results of structural equation modelling (SEM) revealed strong predictive validity of the scale as well as a positive relationship between AL and organizational performance rated by supervisors.
Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure. Journal of Management, Feb2008, Vol. 34 Issue 1, p89-126, 38p
Besides, Jensen & Luthans (2006) examined the relationship between leaders’ psychological capital, psychological strengths and their self-perceptions of AL that the results indicate initial empirical support for this relationship.
Relationship between Entrepreneurs’ Psychological Capital and Their Authentic Leadership. Journal of Managerial Issues, Summer 2006, Vol. 18 Issue 2, p254-273, 22p
You may also refer to other evident such as:
En Route to an Empirically-Based Understanding of Authentic Leadership. European Management Journal, Jun2007, Vol. 25 Issue 3, p207-220, 14p

Best wishes,

Hiroko Kamide 27 July 2008 - 3:17 am

I have some comments and one question to Timothy.

Some similarities are found between self-awareness and “de-automation” of Zen. “De-automation” is the process to aware of the essential qualities of self and the outside world. Usually we live automatically and don’t aware of differences or uniqueness of self and the world. When people practice the meditation of Zen, they deeply concentrate on being free from idle thoughts, and attain the state of selflessness. And when they finish the meditation and return to this ordinary state again, they break quite new selves and the world because of the contrast between previous automatic state and current de-automatic state. That means, “de-automation” is the process to know the true self by means of coming to selflessness and going to automatic state. You mentioned about not to imitate other people’s leadership, but imitation is thought to be necessary to some degree to aware of the true self. In the field of social psychology, the concept of social comparison or reflective self is also related to this process.

Although some papers are already published about authentic leadership, I want to ask you one question. If the potential leadership is presumed as Aristotle a priori assumed the reason of human beings, all people could be authentic leaders theoretically. But these are just previously-postulated essentialism about human beings and can be doubtful. Is the concept of leadership something like potentiality or quality of inherence? As mentioned above, leadership is thought to be objective behavior or recognition by other people. If so, are there significant reasons that you have to mention not just leadership but authentic leadership? Why the new concept of authentic leadership is necessary? It is not always true that easy life or work is good.

Surani Dias 6 September 2016 - 1:28 am

I am a PhD student in Sri Lanka studying Authentic Leadership for my research. I am attached to the Postgraduate Institute of Management in Sri Lanka which is the Business School for MBAs and PhDs.

Currently I am progressing in my research in Authenthic Leadership and would very much like to have a chat with you to exchange ideas.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you


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