What is Authentic Leadership?

By: Josh

When asked to produce a list of the best, most desirable qualities in a leader, many people tend to include the word “authentic” in some way. Our team at 3x5 Leadership even considers leading authentically to be one of the 10 important habits of intentional leaders.

If authentic leadership is so highly regarded, what exactly is it? How do we define it? What does it look like in action? It’s certainly worth exploring and understanding better. Research and existing content offer many varying perspectives on the matter. Together, it unfortunately all makes the topic a little more confusing. So, this article aims to clarify authentic leadership and offer what it is and, maybe more importantly, what it is not. It’s not a simple topic, so while keeping our exploration consolidated in one piece, we know it can still be a lot. We’ve split our look into two parts – part I focused on the theory of authentic leadership and part II transitioning to seeing what it looks like in leader behavior. From this article, we hope you can walk away with a clearer, more firm understanding of authentic leadership.

Part I: Authentic Leadership Defined

Authentic leadership means we lead through a pattern of consistent behaviors that are focused on adding value. We are committed to making people, groups, and things better in our personal and genuine ways.

Authentic leaders have the confidence, competence, and willingness to act in thoughtful, intentional ways even if they are uncommon, counter the status quo, or include known risks and even consequences.

Ultimately, authentic leaders genuinely care for others, care for the organization, and care to positively impact both through their abilities – whatever those abilities may be.

What It is Not

Some misconstrue the idea of authentic leadership and use it as a license for divergent leader behavior. It’s important to recognize that authentic leadership does not authorize leaders to adopt unproductive or destructive attitudes, though they are unfortunately all too common in our workplaces. Authentic leadership is not any of the following attitudes or behaviors:

  • “I’m just not good at…” Authentic leadership is not a hall pass to prevent you from being held accountable to the behaviors or results we expect of leaders. For example, just because you selfishly and lazily say you’re not good at showing appreciation for others doesn’t excuse you from committing to develop that important leadership skill.
  • “This is me, take it or leave it.” You might have personal tendencies of pessimism, talking too much and dominating conversations, or taking credit rather than sharing it with your team. Just because these are natural, inherent behaviors for you does not mean they are acceptable. Authentic leadership does not authorize a lack of consideration for others.
  • Permission to deviate from organizational and social values. Authentic, intentional leaders remain aligned to the values and norms of the organization and our greater social environment. “I’m just being authentic” is a poor excuse for being cruel when giving feedback, especially when our organizational and social groups expect us to treat one another with dignity and respect. Authentic leadership is not permission to go rogue or to do what you want.

Offering a Model: The 5 Components of Authentic Leadership

To help deepen and clarify our understanding of authentic leadership, we can simplify it into five main components.

Character. Authentic leaders do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way all the time. Our character is grounded in values. It compels us to act morally and ethically in accordance with our commitment to social, organizational, and personal values. We live in a society that values equality, diversity, and respect. Authentic leaders champion these values in our behavior every day, in every way, no matter what because it is the right thing to do. This even includes acting in accordance with our character despite the risk of consequences.

Integrity. We do what is in the best interests of the organization and others. Authentic leaders are others-focused, oriented on creating positive impacts for those they serve, lead, and work alongside. We are not subversively scheming to advance our personal interests.

Pioneering. As authentic leaders, we are willing to challenge the status quo for “normal leadership behavior.” We challenge assumptions and are curious about things, especially when people tell us “This is how we have always done it.” This could be things like showing regular gratitude as a leader, even in an industry often considered hard-nosed like the military or construction. It could be showing humility, saying we don’t have an answer to the problem at hand, and inviting others to brainstorm with us. Or it could be challenging the team’s weekly meeting rhythm and redesigning or even cancelling meetings that are not worth peoples’ time. In the end, being an authentic leader means we have the candor to venture into new, maybe even challenging ways of adding value to people and to our team.

Our Superpower. We all have different skills, abilities, perspectives, and experiences. This means we all add different kinds of value to people and organizations. Authentic leaders know, own, and employ our unique skills to add value to others. We have the competence and confidence to add value in our special way. This requires self-awareness and acknowledging that we cannot be all things to all people; we are not the center of everything and are unable to do it all or provide it all as a leader. We leverage our unique strengths and make things better through them. It might be our energy, our attention to detail, our ability to communicate and simplify things for people. It might be engaging with others thoughtfully or using our network of connections to achieve unexpected results. Or it could be our ability to train and develop others. Maybe we have a mind for innovation, able to generate new ways of doing things. Authentic leaders lean in to use our strengths to add value.

Thoughtfulness. Finally, authentic leaders are thoughtful and intentional in our words, actions, and attitudes. We can self-regulate, able to successfully manage our emotions and interactions with others to remain productive, professional, and caring. We take responsibility for ourselves, our tasks, and our duties assigned. We view every moment or interaction with another person as an opportunity to care, to pour into them, and to make their life better.

Part II: What Authentic Leadership Looks Like in Real Life

To help bring this model for authentic leadership to life a bit more, let’s highlight a few examples of what it can look like in our leader behavior. Authentic leaders:

  • Are values driven. Our behaviors, decisions, words, and attitudes are motivated from a commitment to well-defined values that compel us to make people and things around us better. For example, I strongly believe in the value of clarity – to help people understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and why it matters. This leads me to care deeply about taking the time to describe context, explain decisions, and provide the easy-to-understand and logical “why.”
  • Understand priorities. As stated earlier, authentic leadership is not a license to do whatever we’d like. We are aligned to our organizational priorities and that includes our boss’s priorities. Authentic leaders understand our three enduring priorities; we work and lead according to those.
  • Are humble. We focus on our team’s mission and on others, never on ourselves. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. We aim to be more interested in others, not interesting to Ask more questions of others rather than talking about yourself. Use phrases like, “say more about that” or “what’s on your mind?”
  • Care about adding value. Authentic leaders care more about what is best for the organization or others and not about being the person recognized for things or gaining personal benefits. Always keep in the back of our minds: what is best for the group here and how can I support that? Sometimes, the best way we can add value is to remain silent, to listen, and let others bring their unique perspective.
  • Care for others. We nurture genuine and meaningful relationships because we simply care for others. We see everyone else as a human life that has value, dreams, goals, challenges, and a life beyond our team. Our people are more than a title and position to employ. Care about others as a person first, no matter what. Everyone deserves dignity and respect. One simple way to do that is to do something for someone that cannot repay us because it’s the right thing to do. That can be writing a letter of recommendation or affording someone the ability to step away from work to address a family emergency.
  • Are present and invested. Pour into meaningful moments and don’t be distracted. Say we meet a mentor for lunch to catch up and help them process some recent work experiences. During lunch, our boss or a colleague calls. Consider letting the call go to voicemail, I’m sure most matters can wait until after. If this heightens some work anxiety, maybe text the caller back stating you’re in a lunch meeting and can call back later unless it’s an emergency. Or, if someone comes to your office asking to talk, move away from the computer screen and focus on the conversation.
  • Bring energy. We care about our organization and our people. We believe in it and are committed to it. We value who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Authentic leaders bring passion to our work every day and try to make that passion contagious to those we work with.
  • Create space for others to fill. It tends to be easy for energetic, charismatic, and optimistic leaders to become the center of organizational attention, even if unintentionally. We must recognize this and remain deliberate about affording the opportunity for others to take up space. This can apply to making decisions, seeking out their unique perspective during brainstorming sessions, or enabling them to take responsibility for a project for the first time. An easy way to create that space is to state, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

This certainly is not an all-inclusive list; it really only scratches the surface. But I hope these can begin to paint a picture of how we can display authentic leadership, not just in theory but in actual behavior.

For Your Consideration

Research reinforces the vital importance of leader authenticity, which includes its impact on employee job satisfaction, work-related attitudes, and happiness. Being an authentic leader matters. So, how can we commit to being more authentic in our daily behaviors wherever we lead? It’s a powerful way to build more purposeful and effective organizations, and to positively impact peoples’ lives.

What values drive how you work and lead? Have you defined them?

Is there a status quo within your organization you’re unwilling to accept? How do you challenge that status quo professionally and with character, aiming to make the organization better?

What is your superpower? How do you use it to make your organization and others better?

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