Authentic leadership: how significant is it in contemporary organizational leadership?

‘Brand-CON Africa’
Daniel Amateye ANIM

The essence of this article is to explore the theoretical preposition of the theory of authentic leadership and its correlation on practice, more importantly, its application and practicality to promoting integrity and high sense of ethical standards in an organization. It will equally explain the theories which underpin authentic leadership, and also discussed critique provided by other researchers in the field of leadership.

What is Authentic Leadership?

The essence of leadership is fundamentally to help drive an organization, institution so as to attain a level of growth, and more importantly, sustainability into the foreseeable future. On this score, leaders are expected to exercise a high degree of ethical values and standards in their dealings. Unfortunately, over the period, it became evidently clear that leadership has failed to live up to expectations, considering the level of corporate scandals, corruption and unethical behaviours that occurred in the business environment both locally and internationally.

As a result, industry watchers, scholars, academics and experts in leadership have taken the view that, there is the need for an ethical approach to leadership. This ethical approach to ethical leadership must design a leadership model which will institute the need for leaders to act genuinely, exercise a high sense of morality and must equally inspire their followers to equally employ ethical values in the day to day running of the organization.

Authentic leadership therefore seeks to provide the ethical dimension of leadership. Authentic leadership is one of the management styles in which leaders practice transparent behaviour in order to build strong relationships. It mainly emphasizes on transparency, genuineness and honesty. Authentic leader therefore builds authentic relationships and inspire trust and motivation in their employees.

The proponent of authentic leadership theory stipulates that the birth of authentic leadership was as a result of lack of ethical values and behaviours which is ever-present in the 21st century global competitive business environment; manifesting in the areas of corruption, corporate scandals etc. the authors’ position is that authentic leadership is different from the other forms on grounds that, the authentic leaders’ strength is based on its authenticity (George, 2010). In fact, researchers have generally accepted that there are three important factors which influence authentic leadership which include:

  • Positive psychological capabilities.
  • Moral reasoning, and
  • Critical life events.

Self –awareness, self-regulation, balanced processing and relational transparency were also considered by researchers as one of the key values of authentic leaders (Avolio, 2010; Gardiner, 2011). George (2010) suggests the following strategies for increasing authentic leadership:

  • Awareness of internal weaknesses
  • Developing personal leadership style
  • Recognizing internal and external factors associated with positive and negative behaviour
  • Recognizing personal values and understanding self-purpose.

It is worth noting that self-awareness is a key and critical component of authentic leadership, and it demands that the leader have a clear understanding of their personal values, background, identity, emotion and motives (Alok & Israel, 2012). Indeed, it is suggested that self-awareness, self-regulation, balance and transparency should always be reflected upon in action statements so as to attain authenticity.

Theories, values, and assumptions underpinning authentic leadership

The genesis of the theory of authentic leadership can be traced back from the Greek philosophy “To thine own self be true”, through twentieth century modernism with its ideals of self-direction, trustworthiness, and consistency, and then to the post modernistic questioning of whether authenticity can even exist the current era of multiple selves (Harter, 2002).

In fact, similar to other psychological constructs, most attention has been devoted to the lack of authentic self-behavior such as being deceitful, dishonest, manipulative, phony, and conniving. Indeed, as a positive construct, descriptive words include genuine, reliable, trustworthy, real, and veritable. Positive psychologists therefore conceive this authenticity as owning one’s personal experiences, thus, thoughts, emotions, or beliefs, “the real me inside”; and acting in accord with the true self. That is, behaving and expressing what you really think and believe (Harter, 2002).

Authenticity best depicts the type of positive leadership needed in contemporary times, where the environment is dramatically changing, where the rules that have guided how we operate no longer work, and where the best leaders will be transparent with their intentions, having a seamless link between their espoused values, actions, and behaviors. Theoretically, Mischel (1973) referred to such dynamic situations as representing a “weak context,” since there are no clear set of guidelines, rules, or directions for action.

In such contexts, new rules are created to address the ambiguities and lack of clarity confronting a work unit, organization, community, or entire society. In weak contexts, people are more vulnerable, as they are unsure what direction to pursue, and it is in these situations that the most profoundly positive and, unfortunately, negative (Conger, 1990; Luthans, Peterson, & Ibrayeva, 1998)

It is worth noting that, the concept of authentic leadership was popularized by Bill George (2007), when he published his article “Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership” in 2003 and 2007 respectively. George (2010), therefore, stipulates that there are five main dimensions of authentic leadership which include: Passion, Values, Relationships, Self-discipline, Heart

He further stated that authentic leaders exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Understanding their purpose
  • Practicing solid values
  • Establishing connected relationships
  • Demonstrating self-discipline, and
  • Leading with heart.

George (2010) further stated that authentic leaders lead with their hearts and learn from their own and other people’ experiences, yet they strive to be authentic with their values and convictions. Indeed, he was of the view that authentic leadership model is the importance of the leader’s life story in his or her development.

Criticism of Authentic Leadership

Although authentic leadership is considered by many as an ideal model for contemporary leadership, it is without criticism from some researchers and scholars. According to Zhang, Everett, Elkin & Cone (2012), the concept of authenticity is heavily dependent upon the authentic leaders’ life story, and as a result, it will likely be affected by their race, national origin, socio-economic status and other factors.

Sanchez-Runde, Nardon & Steers (2011), on the other hand, noted that leadership is a cultural construct, its meaning based on various cultures where it is exercised and thus global leaders should act in authentic ways that are compatible with local expectations. Therefore, the practices of an authentic leader in an organization based in an individualistic society, like the United States, may come across as rude or disrespectful in a collective society like Japan.

According to Gardiner (2010), the construct of authentic leadership is deeply flawed because it fails to take into account how social and cultural circumstances affect one’s ability to be a leader.  Zhang et al. (2012) also critique authentic leadership. According to him, authentic leadership theory lacks validity in nonwestern context.

In spite of the above criticism, authentic leadership theory is still considered as a model theory for the 21st century organizational leadership. Indeed, authentic leadership is not an absolute antidote for corruption, corporate scandal and greed; instead, it is a positive leadership model that encourages integrity, honesty, ethical and moral behaviour which will eventually create positive long-term outcomes for leaders.


It is the conclusion of the writer that, despite the criticism against authentic leadership theory, it is still relevant to contemporary leadership. This is due to the decrease in ethical leadership. Indeed, authentic leadership has not been offered as a panacea for corruption and greed but rather as a positive leadership model that emphasizes integrity, honesty, ethical and moral behaviour. The theory, indeed, has direct application in professional development of leader within the workplace.

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