Authentic leadership is about character, not style

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Words move in and out of the lexicon of leadership language. One such word is ‘authentic’. The need for leaders to value being authentic and behave and lead with authenticity is growing. Since we entered the 21st century its usage has increased in a range of leadership contexts.

However,  it did set me to wondering where this whole notion of authenticity came from and what did the originator mean because in a recent discussion with a leader their view of authenticity did not resonate as I found their description to be rigid. The view expressed was that being an authentic leader means having inherent confidence and unwavering belief in one’s self. To tell it how it is for you without fear or favour and if one believes one is correct to hold the line no matter what.

I first came across the word authentic in a leadership context in the seminal work of Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones published in 2006 titled ‘Why anyone should be led by you? ‘. I recommend the book, and the question they pose is a good one to ask of yourself and of your leaders. I have obtained some interesting responses to that question over the years from different leaders.

Their view is that the authentic leader is a person who understands their individual differences, whatever they might be, and know how to genuinely apply them in ways that have meaning for their followers. They cite Sir Richard Branson as an example; he uses his appearance – casual dress, beard and long hair – to signal his informality and his nonconformity which has become central to his leadership style, it’s authentic, not manufactured.

The question remained, was the Goffee and Jones work the starting point or was there something, or someone, even earlier that brought this word into vogue?

Further research found reference to a book Authentic Leadership written in 2003 by Bill George, Harvard Business School professor and former CEO of Medtronic, in response to the Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco debacles.

He defines an authentic leader as “a person of highest integrity committed to building an enduring organization, who has a deep sense of purpose and is true to their core values and has the courage to build their company to meet the needs of all stakeholders, and who recognise the importance of their service to society.” This is a very different perspective the views of the leader I shared earlier.

Bill George believes truly authentic leaders display these qualities:

  • Clear sense of purpose
  • Actively live their Core Values
  • Lead with heart and head
  • Value relationships
  • Demonstrate self-discipline
  • Willing to learn and grow from their experiences
  • Accept they are not perfect, nor do they try to be
  • Are sensitive to the needs of others

Authentic leadership is about character, not style. Reflecting on Bill George’s perspective, I considered how I measured up to his criteria. I also thought of the upcoming Federal Election and our current batch of political leaders. Forget about their political persuasions, how many would be able to place a tick against Bill George’s eight criteria and why we should be led by any one of them. I’ll leave it to you to ponder how you measure up and how well our country’s leaders do too as we determine within the next few days who will lead this great country for the next three years.


Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers to create the conditions that allow their people to do their best work every day thus creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its outcomes.    

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