Authentic Leadership: Perspectives Essay

Warning - this is long! This is an essay I wrote about Authentic Leadership for my Ed Perspectives Paper at Waikato University.


The Oxford Dictionary defines authentic as “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine” and leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this”. Therefore we may surmise that ‘authentic leadership’ is simply the ability to lead a group of people whilst being genuine.

In this paper I consider a range of perspectives and definitions for the concept of authentic leadership: authentic leadership as self awareness, authentic leadership as exemplified by authentic behaviours driven by a moral purpose and authentic leadership as a broader metaphor for effective leadership . I also consider the strengths and limitations of authentic leadership and consider how authentic leadership is manifest in my practice and consider how the concept of authentic leadership may also influence future actions.

Literature Review

Authentic Leadership as Self Awareness
The definition of authentic leadership that is most common in the literature studied is the concept of authentic equating to bringing an authentic self to the role of leadership or as George and Sims (2007) puts it, genuine people who are true to themselves and to what they believe in. Henderson and Hoy (1983) refer to this as exhibiting salience of self over role. Self awareness (Kernis, 2003) is also central to the definition provided by Brown and Trevino (2006) who see self-awareness, openness, transparency, and consistency as the core of authentic leadership, stating that authentic leaders emphasise authenticity and self-awareness. Begley (2004) also makes this connection between self and other, stating “authentic leadership is a function of self-knowledge, sensitivity to the orientations of others, and a technical sophistication that leads to a synergy of leadership action.” (Begley, 2004, p. 5). Many authors also make the connection between self-awareness and how this supports meaningful relationships with others. Bhindi and Duigan (1997) frame this as the discovery of the authentic self through meaningful relationships or as Whitehead (2009) puts it, (an authentic leader) is self-aware, humble, always seeking improvement, aware of those being led and looks out for the welfare of others.

Self-awareness as defined here, also leads to the authentic leader being aware of their natural abilities, but also able to recognise their shortcomings, and therefore  works hard to overcome them. Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth (George, 2003, p. 12). Authentic leaders are “those individuals who know who they are, what they think and behave (Avolio, Luthans et al., 2004, p. 4 as cited in Avolio, Gardner et al., 2004, pp. 802, 803). Hence, authentic leadership is not just about being self-aware but also being aware enough to recognise areas that need improving and developing further. This combination is what 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).

Authentic Leadership as Leading with Moral Purpose 
In much of the literature studied, authenticity, as Champy (2009) suggests, equates to honesty in all that you do, with authentic leaders being “genuine people who are true to themselves and to what they believe in” (George and Sims, 2007, p. xxxi). Therefore, authentic leaders are perceived by others as honest and being driven by a high moral character and being driven by a sense of moral purpose. The authentic leader is “aware of their own and others' values/moral perspective, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and high on moral character” (Avolio, Luthans, & Walumbwa, 2004, p. 4), and being motivated as Brown and Trevino (2006) put it, by positive end values and concern for others (rather than self-interest only). As Whitehead (2009) suggests, the authentic leader fosters high degrees of trust by building an ethical and moral framework.

Furthermore, there is the sense that authentic leadership extends beyond self and direct relationships to affect both organisational structures and its values. “A hierarchical organisation, in short, like an individual person, is ‘authentic’ to the extent that, throughout its leadership, it accepts finitude, uncertainty, and contingency; realizes its capacity for responsibility and choice; acknowledges guilt and errors; fulfills its creative managerial potential for flexible planning, growth, and charter or policy formation; and responsibly participates in the wider community.” (Rome and Rome, 1967, p. 185), suggesting that authentic leadership may even result in what may be seen as an ‘authentic organisation’. Bhindi and Duignan (1997) flip this notion and see the discovery of the authentic self through meaningful relationships within organizational structures and processes that support core, significant values. It is interesting to consider the reciprocity of authenticity - the authentic leader developing an authentic organisation and the organisation providing a context through which a leader may discover and develop their own authenticity.

Authentic Leadership as Metaphor for Effective Leadership
As Begley (2001, 2007) suggests, authentic leadership may also be thought of as a metaphor for professionally effective, ethically sound, and consciously reflective practices in educational administration. Whitehead (2009) also describes an authentic leader as one who is committed to organisational success within the construct of social values. Suggesting it is not enough to be simply genuine or authentic in nature, authentic leadership suggests they are effective and committed to organisational success. Therefore authentic leadership is also aligned with concepts of positive or effective leadership. As Avolio and Gardner (2006) suggest, authentic leadership can incorporate transformational, charismatic, servant, spiritual or other forms of positive leadership or as Brown and Trevino (2006) frame it, authentic leaders model positive attributes such as hope, optimism, and resiliency.


When we consider authentic leadership within this positive frame we can see that there are many strengths to being with authentic leadership, these include better decisions made, based on the premise that actions are informed by values and a clear moral purpose. There is also research that suggests that an authentic leader may have positive flow-on effects to followers. Add to this the fact that authentic leaders are self-aware which suggests they may also be more open to personal growth and improvement. If as Kernis (2003) suggests, an authentic leader is capable of unbiased processing, relational authenticity, and authentic behavior/action being an authentic leader is undoubtedly a strength.

The self awareness of the authentic leader is a definite strength, with authentic leaders “being aware of their own and others' values/moral perspective, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, resilient, and of high moral character.” (Avolio, Luthans et al., 2004, p. 4). Brown and Trevino (2006) suggest this combined with the notion of authentic leaders having a moral purpose means they are capable of judging ambiguous ethical issues, viewing them from multiple perspectives, and aligning decisions with their own moral values, and as Champy (2009) suggests being authentic can also make business life easier - when you are clear on what you value, the answers to tough questions become clearer.

Furthermore, Avolio and Gardner (2006) suggest this can have positive flow on effects to followers through increased self-awareness, self-regulation, and positive modeling. Authentic leaders foster the development of authenticity in followers and therefore, the followers’ authenticity then “contributes to their well-being and the attainment of sustainable and veritable performance” (Avolio and Gardner 2006, p.317). Research also suggests that in organizations led by authentic leaders, followers are expected to improve work efforts, engage in organizational citizenship, benefit from improved work performance and gain an increased trust in leadership (Avolio et al. 2004; Gardner et al. 2005; Walumbwa et al. 2008; Ladkin, D., and Spiller). As Luthans and Avolio (2009) suggest authentic leadership is not just about being self-aware but also being aware enough to recognise areas that need improving and growing. This personal growth can also lead to what Eigel and Kuhnert (2005) refer to as  improved positive emotions, well-being and leadership effectiveness. Indeed benefits may also extend beyond the individual to the organisation as a whole. Reynold (2009) suggests that their practice may be more sustainable as authentic leaders tend to think longer-term. They are more interested in creating sustainable businesses than in making a fast buck. So not only does authentic leadership have the potential to support personal growth, authentic leadership may also have the ability to support economic growth as well.


However, it is important to consider that the very thing that makes authentic leadership effective may also be the source of it’s key limitations. Being genuine and being oneself is effective as long as that ‘self’ is a good and likeable person. In the essay Viewpoint: an authentic jerk Lauren Zander explores the idea that authentic leadership can be bad leadership and that “being your true self and saying what you think can be highly problematic if the real you is kind of a jerk” (as quoted by Zander in Ladkin, D., and Spiller, C., 2013 p.279). As Ladkin and Spiller (2013) suggest being committed to ‘being yourself’ and not managing bad qualities may also have an impact on the wider organisation. Being authentic as a leader works as long as your authentic self is appropriate to context.

A similar issue can arise if the authentic leader articulates values that are not shared by followers, which as Eagly (2005) considers, results in reluctance among followers to accord the leader the legitimacy to promote such values on their behalf. Even if the leader is genuinely authentic, if followers don’t share their values, organisational success will be limited.

Another potential limitation as identified by Ladkin and Spiller (2013) is the singular focus on ‘the leader’ which may result in marginalisation of other important contextual conditions which affect the workings and success of modern organisations. If the authentic leader is seen as the ‘linchpin’ of organisational success it may hinder the ability to see issues or opportunities in other areas.

There is also the concern that the authentic leader is nearly ‘too good to be true’.  As Ladkin and Spiller (2013) suggest, the notion of authentic leadership that characterises leaders as saints or prophets may encourage and reinforce hierarchical relations and power dependencies in various ways. Accordingly, authentic leaders are often seen as truly extraordinary and idealistic people who Ladkin and Spiller (2013) suggest exhibit the ability to sacrifice themselves and act as martyrs for the sake of a specific cause, without receiving any particular personal reward and as Champy (2009) suggests being฀authentic฀requires฀openness,฀a฀willingness฀to be fully transparent in all your operations. To be an authentic leader as defined here, is so idealistic it seems on some levels, impossible to maintain.

Finally, another limitation of authentic leadership is the notion that being one’s self can make you a target. In the article Essay: Can I Really Be Me? Amanda Sinclair discusses the challenges for women leaders constructing authenticity, arguing that high profile public servant Christine Rankin “was unfairly targeted in both her role and the court case because she did not conform to a sober, masculine public sector image”. (Sinclair as quoted in Ladkin, D., and Spiller, C., 2013, p.246). If your authentic self does not comply with society’s perception of what a leader should look or behave like in any particular context, can you still be considered an effective or successful leader at all?

How has authentic leadership theory has influenced or is manifest in your leadership practice, or that of others in your current educational context.

George (2003) suggested that the authentic leader is aware of their natural abilities, but they also recognize their shortcomings, and work hard to overcome them.  If we consider this definition then I believe I can be considered an authentic leader. I have always been quick to acknowledge my strengths but to also recognise areas that need further development. In a recent blog post I outlined my desire to become explicit in my honouring of our bi-cultural heritage in my leadership and teaching:

The reason for choosing this is as my topic is the result of some serious reflection on my past and my practice. For many years I feel like I have "ticked off" Registered Teacher Criteria no. 3 "demonstrate commitment to bicultural partnership in Aotearoa New Zealand", which has the key indicator "demonstrate respect for the heritages, languages and cultures of both partners to the Treaty of Waitangi" without being entirely convinced I am doing so, at least not explicitly.

I suspect my background and experiences will be similar to many in New Zealand. Educated in a school that was for the most part extremely monocultural, with knowledge of Maori heritages, languages and cultures being limited to the occasional Social Studies or History class. Te Reo was not offered, yet funnily enough Indonesian was (odd priorities for a very large NZ high school). When I went to university I did start feeling like something was amiss and did attempt to learn Te Reo, but due to a combination of general second language learning crapness and some deep seated middle class white girl shame and paranoia I struggled to even step foot into the Maori dept without translating my insecurities into believing they didn't want me there anyway. I attempted the Level One course twice and failed both times - on reflection this was more a result of my own mental blocks rather than anything to do with the course or the people delivering it. (Amos, 2015)

As George (2003) suggests, authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth. Another example of my self-awareness and desire to grow is also seen here in a blogpost where I shared another personal professional goal for the year:

As I looked at it (my personal goal - How might Claire personalise her leadership style so as to better support her professional learning team) more closely, I realised I was looking to apply what I regarded as effective pedagogy to what I hope is effective leadership. We strive to differentiate our teaching and learning as a means of meeting the needs of diverse learners, but do we differentiate our leadership style so as to meet the diverse needs of our team? Do we tend to adopt a model of leadership that we think might suit the context or project (and simply reflect how we like to be led) and forget that we are still dealing with a range of people that need a range of approaches to meet them where they are at? As I mentioned in an earlier post - this is an inquiry I am exploring with my Professional Learning Team. To begin my focusing inquiry I have started with a simple activity of actually meeting with each of my team and simply asking what kind of leader they needed me to be for them to feel supported and encouraged to develop as increasingly autonomous leader in their own right? How I work with them from here on in is going to be determined by their needs combined with a common framework or approach of having termly strategic team meetings (where we consider our collective plans for the term in relation to our collective strategic plan) and individual fortnightly catch ups (that can be more or less regular than that according to needs) where we discuss their short term goals for each term. If this improves how we function as a team and how they perceive my leadership effectiveness will only be seen as we move through the year - so I am guessing it is a case of 'time will tell'. (Amos, 2015)

As Avolio, Luthans et al. (2004) suggest, authentic leaders are those individuals who know who they are, what they think and behave, authentic leadership is not just about being self-aware but also being aware enough to recognise areas that need improving and growing. If there is one thing of which I am certain, my practice very much fits this definition of authentic leadership.

Authentic leadership in the future

Starratt (2004) suggests the authentic educational leader cultivates and sustains an environment that promotes the work of authentic teaching and learning. As someone who hopes to be a principal and then politician, continuing to work at being an authentic leader will be central to my career success. Brown and Trevino (2006) identify the main ideas underpinning authentic leadership as ethical decision-making, integrity and role modeling.  I see each of these ideas as central to the role of both principal and politician. When the wellbeing of your staff and students (or even constituents) is central to what you do, ethical decision making based on clearly articulated values is paramount to making decisions that achieve long term gains and ensure buy in. Integrity as defined by the Oxford Dictionary “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles” outlines what I would hope would be qualities of any principal or politician (although I sense this may be more aspirational than actual for some). Finally, to be a positive role model for my peers and our young people is something I continue to work at on a daily basis.


Authentic leadership can be viewed from many perspectives, ranging from a synonym for self-awareness to a metaphor for effectiveness. While the attainment of complete authenticity as a leader is an ideal, Erickson (1995) cautions that authenticity should not be conceived as an either/or condition, since people are never completely authentic or inauthentic. Thus, as Gardner et al. (2001) suggests it is more realistic to describe a person as being more or less authentic. As with any theory of leadership, benefits and limitations exist due to the fact that leadership of any sort can be effective or ineffective based on the individual and the context that they lead in. Whilst I do recognise facets of authentic leadership within my own practice, I am also aware that to be truly authentic I must also recognise, as George (2003) states,  that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.


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