The notion of 'authenticity' has been around for decades in the counselling, psychotherapy and coaching professions. Authenticity means being true to character, true to oneself; not living through a false image or false emotions that hide the real you.
The OED definition of authentic in this context is simply: "Genuine."
The OED's more general definition is: "Of undisputed origin, and not a copy."
Both definitions resonate strongly with the commonly understood meanings of authenticity in human personality and relationships.
The term 'Authentic Leadership' was first used as a term by Bill George in his book, Authentic Leadership. He wrote it in 2003, around the time of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. These big corporate crimes provoked a backlash, prompting a strong wish (certainly presented and reflected in the media and by politicians) for leaders of substance; leaders that people could trust. Authentic leaders, in other words.
Authentic leaders know and live their values and they win people's trust by being who they are, not pretending to be someone else or living up to others' expectations. The notion of being genuine equates to being honest and truthful, and being strait and direct. Avoiding the use of 'spin' and PR and meaningless or hiding behind vague words and hollow promises.
The key to becoming an authentic leader, according to Bill George, is "...to learn how to lead yourself... it's not about competencies and skills." So, paying attention to one's character development, inner leadership or self-mastery - whatever you want to call it - is crucial to becoming an authentic leader.
Other authors have built on Bill George's ideas. Nick Craig, co-author with Bill George of the book, Defining Your True North, lists four elements of authentic leadership:
1. Being true to yourself in the way you work - no facade.
2. Being motivated by a larger purpose (not by your ego).
3. Being prepared to make decisions that feel right, that fit your values - not decisions that are merely politically astute or designed to make you popular.
4. Concentrating on achieving long-term sustainable results.
A difficulty in this philosophy is that as the popularity and writings around authentic leadership grow, so its definition is beginning to blur, and to overlap with other philosophies. Given the nature of a philosophy this is inevitable. For example, an overlap exists with servant leadership in point 2 of Craig's list, which strongly implies a sense of service.
Authentic leadership is also beginning to gain a spiritual connotation, which you can see in this quote by the author Sarah Ban Breathnach: "The authentic self is the soul made visible." Nonetheless, despite the expansion of interpretations, the philosophy of authentic leadership has gained ground in the 21st-century and the trend is likely to persist.
George, Bill. (2003). Authentic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Print.
George, Bill, Andrew N McLean, and Nick Craig. (2008) Finding Your True North. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008. Print.