Why Authentic Leadership Matters, Backed By Research

Is there a special cocktail of knowledge and skills that make for a successful leader?


A study among diverse leaders from various organizations (George et al., 2007) found no consistent defining traits of leaders, except one: that they led based on what they knew about themselves.

In other words, they were authentic.

Here, we’ll look at what this means for you as a leader, and why applying a few techniques could make a big difference for your organization.

What are Authentic Leaders?

With its roots in positive psychology, authentic leadership uses positive behaviors generated from an individual’s own sense of self, including beliefs and values, to influence others and guide good decision making. These simple, genuine behaviors have been shown to have a distinct impact on organizations.

Drawing on authentic leadership data from various cultural settings, a comprehensive study by Walumbwa and colleagues (2008) identifies four areas where leaders must excel:

  1. Self-awareness: a knowledge of who they are and how they are developing
  2. An internally held set of values drawn from their own experiences
  3. The ability to analyze all relevant views when making a decision and consider each view fairly.
  4. Presenting their self-knowledge, internally held values, and decision making process transparently to others in the organization

Communities in management and positive psychology have studied how authentic leadership factors into work and organizational life. Walumbwa, along with many other authors since, identifies a compelling connection between authentic leadership, trust, employee motivation and organizational performance.


Why is Authentic Leadership so beneficial?

Through this research, it’s clear that followers trust leaders who behave according to who they are. In turn, those followers become more motivated and committed to making an extra effort at work. What’s more, those principles of self-awareness and transparency can transfer to followers, making your work environment much more generative overall.

All of these factors make a significant contribution to high-performing organizations.

Takeaways for your practice

Authentic leadership does not happen after one training, or after you’ve read one book. You, as a leader, must commit to regularly incorporating some of these practices into your everyday life:

  • Reflect: Think about what you’ve learned as you became a leader, and how those lessons became your values and shaped who you are. By becoming more aware of these lessons, you’ll be able to tap into who you are much more easily.
  • Tell your story: George,Walumbwa and their colleagues recommend doing this reflection through some kind of story. Storytelling is a powerful tool for communicating with others, but it’s also a powerful tool for communicating with yourself. Draw a timeline, map, or create other images that help you trace your journey.
  • Share your values, and listen to others:  Make it clear that you know where you are coming from, but that you welcome other views as a means for growth. You’ll practice transparency and balance, which are crucial traits for followers to see in authentic leaders.

Authentic leadership may be one of the key components of developing sustainable trust, motivation, and fairness in the workplace; climates with those qualities can foster better employee retention and productivity.

How does this apply in your workplace? Could authenticity be the missing factor for leadership?

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George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A.N., Mayer, D. (2007) “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership.” Harvard Business Review. 

You can find the original article here!

Walumbwa, F.O., Avolio, B.J., Gardner, W.L., Wernsign, T.S., & Peterson, S.J. (2008) Authentic leadership: development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34 (1), 89-126.

You can find the original article here!

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