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What is Authentic Leadership?

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 and not living through a false image or false emotions that hide the real you.
  • The OED definition 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 Origins of Authentic Leadership

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, truthful, straight and direct. Avoiding the use of 'spin' and PR and meaningless or hiding behind vague words and hollow promises.

  • According to Bill George, the key to becoming an authentic leader is " 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.

Four Elements of Authentic Leadership

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 it grows, its definition is beginning to blur, and overlap with other philosophies. Given the nature of 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, this philosophy has gained ground in the 21st century and the trend is likely to persist.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.

References and Further Reading

  • 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.