Authentic Leadership – What Is It?

By Natanya Rutstein

With so many high-profile corporate scandals making the headlines in the last few years, its no wonder that people have begun to seriously mistrust their leaders. In his ground-breaking books – Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership – Author and Leadership Guru, Phil George, shares his extensive research on leadership and how to become an authentic leader, which he believes is the style of leadership required for the 21st century.

There are numerous definitions of authentic leadership, however despite this, a literature review reveals a common thread running through the varied interpretations of authentic leadership. Boas Shamir and Galit Eilam in their paper, What’s your story?  A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development, put forward that “Authentic leaders are portrayed as possessing self-knowledge and a personal point of view, which reflects clarity about their values and convictions. They are also portrayed as identifying strongly with their leadership role, expressing themselves by enacting that role, and acting on the basis of their values and convictions.” (The Leadership Quarterly 16 (2005) 395–417)

Whereas traditional leadership theories have sought to characterise great leaders by examining common characteristics together with the skills and competencies required to develop leadership capability, authentic leadership theories depart from this supposition and have moved towards a focus on the discovery of the personal and individual life story of every leader.

This journey begins with self- exploration and the development of an awareness and understanding of the experiences which make up your life-story and how these experiences have shaped your beliefs and convictions. This self-awareness is what facilitates leaders in developing their authenticity through ensuring that their actions are consistently guided and justified by their values, beliefs and convictions, which have evolved from their life experiences.

In order to stay on course, authentic leaders must constantly self-reflect and be willing to receive honest feedback from their team members and the numerous support structures and networks which they have built around them, both personal and professional.

Companies should focus on developing authentic leaders who possess high standards of integrity, take responsibility for their actions, and make decisions based on enduring principles rather than short-term expedience. Authentic leaders are people whose inner compass guides their daily actions and enables them to earn the trust of subordinates, peers, and shareholders. As the Harvard Business Review declared in January 2015, “Authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.”

In next week’s blog, I will examine more closely how to go about developing authentic leaders within your organisation.


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