What Does it Mean to be an Authentic Leader?

authentic leadership
The author in Greenland

Being an authentic leader is about more than just being true to yourself

I stopped and stared at the footprint. It was about the size of a dinner plate and as far as I was concerned it was not supposed to be there. Unfortunately, no matter how long I stared at it, the print would not disappear from the otherwise pristine snow. It was undoubtedly a polar bear footprint, but I had assumed no bear would come this far up into the mountains. The evidence in front of me told me I was wrong. The problem was I had planned against this false assumption and decided, that to save weight, I would not carry my rifle and ammunition with me when we scaled the mountain. A rifle is not a usual bit of mountaineering equipment but when you are in a remote location in Greenland it is better to carry a rifle than to become a hungry bear’s mid-morning snack.

Gazing at the footprint reminded me of a joke. Two guys are camping, and a bear appears and starts growling. The first guy immediately opens his rucksack and starts to put on his training shoes. The second guy says “Your crazy! You can’t outrun a bear!” The first guy replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

My climbing partner asked me why I was smiling.

Exit pursued by a bear

It would have been somewhat insensitive to share what I had been thinking. I probably could outrun my climbing partner but, considering she was also my wife, I was not going to point this out. If I did, I would have not remained alive, or married, long enough to do anything.

I pushed the distracting thoughts away and considered our options. We could head back to the tent for the rifle – which would take at least an hour – or continue up the mountain. I figured that if the polar bear was still around then the traverse back to the campsite would be the most likely way to meet it. Therefore, we choose to continue up the mountain. Hopefully, by the time we were done, the bear would have moved on, heading back to the glacier for some tasty seal, rather than following us any higher.

I hoped.

The pursuit of adventure

I have always loved adventure. As a kid, I dreamed of being Indiana Jones or MacGyver and would roam the woods with my Swiss Army knife practising my skills. Some of these dreams I turned into reality. I went on expeditions to the jungles of Central America to look for archaeological remains and went on to train as a bomb disposal officer.

I also dreamed of being an explorer and doing a real ‘first’. That led me to become a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and researching the few bits of virgin territory left in the world. Through this study, I became attracted to Greenland as a place where there were still mountains that had no recorded first ascents or descents, particularly on skis, which is the method I was hoping to use. The mountains in Greenland are not particularly tall or necessarily technical, so they did not hold the allure for all mountaineers, but they suited me just fine. They were remote, untouched, and ripe for scaling.

That idea had led to this expedition, to this climb and this moment of decision regarding the bear. Making choices about avoiding bears is not every leader’s day-to-day but it reflected who I am. Being adventurous was part of my true self; a facet of me as an authentic leader.

What is an authentic leader?

Authentic leadership is a relatively new leadership theory in the behavioural school of leadership theories. In many ways, it is largely the coming together of other leadership models. But it does put an emphasis on being true to self that differentiates it from other approaches.

Taken at face value authentic leadership could be misleading or even damaging. After all, a toxic leader can be true to himself or herself and still be a bad leader. That is why true authentic leadership is about self-awareness, not just being true to self. It is also why an authentic leader also displays all four of the leadership traits listed below. 

Who developed authentic leadership theory?

Bill George is the name most associated with the term after publishing his book Authentic Leadership in 2003. He approached the subject from the practitioner point of view, making the case for responsible leadership as compared to the fake, hubristic, greedy or power-grabbing leadership that he observed in various spheres of management. 

The subject has gained traction in academia and Bruce J Avolio and William L Gardner are at the forefront of scholarly writing on the theory. If you read them, and other scholars work, you will see there is no one agreed definition of authentic leadership. There is however growing consensus around the four key qualities of an authentic leader. These are: 

  • Self-awareness  
  • Balance 
  • Transparency 
  • Morality

The four factors of authentic leadership

Here is an explanation of the four characteristics displayed by authentic leaders:


An authentic leader is self-aware. Through self-inquiry, they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. The importance of this trait can be traced back at least as far as Socrates whose basis of wisdom was:

“Know thyself.”


An authentic leader can also show emotion and does not need to hide weakness or failure. This gives them the humanity and vulnerability that Brené Brown advocates for in her book Dare to Lead.

An authentic leader also has an informed view of how others perceive them; not just a self-image based on hubris and self-importance. This self-awareness means that a leader comes across as genuine and humble. 

Self-inquiry means that an authentic leader is on a path of continual development. They have what is commonly called a growth mindset.


Balance, for the authentic leader, means balanced processing. In other words, they reflect on their decisions to balance the needs of the task, team and individual. In this way, they encompass the Action Centred leadership of John Adair.

Balance is also reflected in other aspects of a leader, such as work-life balance. Here, the metaphor of a leader watching a control panel or dashboard is a good one to keep in mind. The authentic leader is conscious of their physical, mental, spiritual, and relational gauges. They monitor their levels to make sure they do not stray into the red, or run empty, on any given dial. 


An authentic leader is transparent in what they do. They have clear motives, not secret agendas. This idea is closely related to the character trait of integrity: a leader is true to their values and acts in accordance with their words. This means their behaviour is easy to understand and predict.

They also have relational transparency. That does not mean they are over-familiar with colleagues and team members. They are friendly but also clear about roles, responsibilities and boundaries, and these standards are the same for everyone. They do not have a clique or inner circle with whom they act differently.

An authentic leader seeks to resolve conflict but does not shy away from difficult conversations. They do not hide failure – be that their own or their team’s – but seek to learn from mistakes and rectify problems.  


An authentic leader has a strong sense of morality. They have an internalised moral perspective – an inner compass – based on the personal and social precepts that they hold to. This concept is strongly linked to self-awareness as you must know your personal values in order to live by them. The emphasis on moral tenants is similar to that of Principle-centred Leadership espoused by Stephen R Covey.

Knowing yourself and your values is unlikely to be enough for other people to follow you. This is why the concept of morality is also related to the idea of mission and the commitment to a dream that goes beyond selfish motives. An authentic leader, as with the transformational leader, communicates a vision that inspires others and seeks to bring positive change that will outlast them. 

The adventurous leader

“To thine own self be true.” Polonius, Hamlet

We made it to the top of the mountain, and back again, without being troubled by the bear. I got to fulfil my dream of being an explorer, of going somewhere first. In this way, I was being true to myself. I love adventure; it is part of who I am. I am not always off on expeditions, but I make adventure part of my approach to life. I continually seek to challenge myself, remain open to new experiences and find joy from being in the outdoors.

Adventure is part of who I am. How about you? What would you say defines your personality and approach to leadership? 

Self-awareness is the keystone of authentic leadership. It is the main element that differentiates it from other leadership theories. But, to be truly authentic, remember the three other elements too. Authentic leadership is being balanced, transparent and having a sense of morality. An authentic leader is committed to a higher vision, a purpose that is not just personal and a set of values that promote positivity. That is what sets aside an authentic leader from a hubristic leader who is true to self, but awful!

It might be that you have never thought about it before but what makes you authentic, not just an imitation? Take a few moments to reflect on how you would describe yourself as a manager. If you get the chance today, be brave and ask your colleagues about how they would describe you. 

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