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Fig. 1.

Authentic Leadership Defined

While appearing to be relatively simple to define, authentic leadership is actually quite complex. Scholars vary in their description, each from a different perspective and emphasis of importance. The following will illustrate three viewpoints thought to represent the definition of this theory.  The first is interpersonal, the second is intrapersonal, and the third is developmental (Northouse, 2016 as cited in Chan, 2005). As this theory gains credibility, the definition may require some alteration to further enhance the understanding.


When we attempt to define authentic leadership in an interpersonal manner we are claiming that authentic leadership is a two-way process that takes into account both the leader’s actions and the follower’s responses (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). Authentic leadership, according to this perspective, emerges from high-quality relations between leaders and followers (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). This implies a team-effort approach by both involved parties.


Fig. 2.

The intrapersonal approach, on the other hand, is an attempt to describe the qualities of an authentic leader. Such an approach declares that an authentic leader is genuine, does not attempt to hide his/her true self, is self-aware, and can regulate his/her actions and emotions (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). This type of leader "leads from conviction" (Northouse, 2016).  There is an emphasis placed on the leader's life experiences and how that person attaches meaning to those events as being critical in their development. (Northouse, 2016)

 Fig. 3.

The final way of defining authentic leadership is via the developmental approach which suggests that authenticity can be learned and developed via the experience of major life events such as critical illness, tragedy, or new career paths (Pennsylvania State University, 2015).  As the name suggests, the developmental approach grows throughout the lifetime of the leader with the foundation in positive psychological qualities and strong ethics (Northouse, 2016). This perspective is something that can be "nurtured in a leader, rather than a fixed trait." (Northouse, 2016)


Fig. 4.

The Presence of Authenticity in a Leader

The appearance of authenticity includes qualities such as genuineness, empathy, respect, trustworthiness, reliability, and believability (Waite, McKinney, Smith-Glasgow, Meloy, 2014). Authentic leader are typically perceived as being naturally open, hopeful, optimistic, and resilient; exhibits warmth and relationship-centered principles; and is an inspiration in respected professional and personal environments (Murphy, 2012). Leaders who model fairness, execute justice for others and include their convictions of the heart can be received as authentic leaders. Evidence of a leader's trustworthiness and authenticity can be observed through the leader's non-verbal communication such as body language and emotional responses (Ladkin & Taylor, 2010 as cited by Waite et al, 2014).

Approaches to Authentic Leadership

There are two approaches to Authentic Leadership: practical and theoretical.  The practical approach is centered on real situations and describes how to approach authentic leadership.  The theoretical approach is the result of research in the social sciences.  (Northouse, 2016.)


The Practical Approaches

Authentic Leadership Wheel (Terry, 1993)

This practical approach to authentic leadership developed by Bob Terry is a diagnostic tool that an organization can use to determine its weaknesses and subsequently to mitigate them.   A wheel comprised of six segments (representing: meaning, mission, power, structure, resources and existence) is used to determine if all six of the elements are present.  At the center of the circle is fulfillment, which is only attained with the presence of all six elements.  This is an indication that the conditions exist for authentic leadership to occur.  If one or more of these elements is missing, the circle is damaged, leaving fulfillment impossible, and hence, authentic leadership unattainable (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). 



Fig. 5.
Terry's Authentic Leadership Wheel



Authentic Leadership Approach (George, 2003)

This practical approach, developed by Bill George a decade after Terry's approach, also employs a similarly segmented wheel-shaped tool. However, the sections of Bill George’s wheel represent opportunities for an individual to develop, which is in contrast to Terry’s problem-oriented organizational deficiencies. George preferred to think of each section of his wheel as a “developmental continuum” or opportunity that a leader could work on and improve over time, as opposed to an element that is either present or absent as Terry asserted. Unlike Terry, George views the dimensions as "less of" or "more of", allowing the leader to improve each dimension. Furthermore, George's approach does not require all dimensions to be present before the conditions are met for authentic leadership to occur. (Pennsylvania State University, 2015.)
Each dimension (inner segment) has a matching characteristic (outer segment), with purpose being the key dimension. See the figure at right: 

The characteristics depicted in the outer ring in George's wheel are observable outcomes and the dimensions, shown in the inner wheel, are "underlying, unobservable qualities".  The dimensions and characteristics can be thought of similarly to traits and behaviors. (Pennsylvania State University, 2015).  



  Fig. 6.
George's Authentic Leadership Developmental Continuum


The Theoretical Approach   

Although still in its initial stages of development, an authentic leadership model is now becoming increasingly studied in the social science literature. The study of leadership is nothing new, however, authentic leadership is considered more recent with the first article published in 2003.  Authentic leadership has more recently been explored due to societal disorder in major corporate scandals such as WorldCom, Enron, and failures in the banking industry.  Early literature on authentic leadership lacked the theoretical framework necessary to define and explain the theory as a process.  The difficulty has been translating what makes a trusted and centered leader into a scientific study of characteristics and effects or a model that can be applied to a variety of situations (Northouse, 2016).

Walumbwa and associates (2008) extracted information from reviewing literature and interviewing content experts to arrive at a theoretical model of authentic leadership that is empirically based and supported (Northouse, 2016). This model ultimately assumes that authentic leadership has four elements which establish the groundwork of the theory.  These elements are:

    • Self-awareness
    • Internalized moral perspective
    • Balanced processing 
    • Relational transparency

When these elements are present in a given leader they are more likely to enhance the leader’s perceived authenticity (Northouse, 2016).  



Fig. 7.

Self-awareness is a process by which a leader comes to recognize who he/she is in terms of morals, motivations, feelings, goals, the strengths and weaknesses of their character, and who they are and what they stand for (Northouse, 2016). When leaders are self-aware and have a clear understanding of themselves, they are more likely to stand by their decisions; this ultimately enhances follower's willingness to support their leader's decisions and commit to them (Northouse, 2016).

Internalized Moral Perspective 

Fig. 8.

When leaders do what is right versus what is best, they are more likely to be perceived as authentic.  For this reason, leaders who have an internalized moral perspective that directs their actions are less likely to allow other individuals to influence them and are most likely to act in accordance with their own beliefs, morals, ethics, principles, and values, demonstrating reliability, and authenticity (Northouse, 2016).


 Balanced Processing

Fig. 9.

Objectivity and openness to others’ ideas are the major highlights of balanced processing.  That is, in order for leaders to be authentic, it is important that they suspend their subjectivity and objectively seek and evaluate others’ opinions and perspectives in order to arrive at the best decision. When this occurs, followers will trust that decisions made are unbiased and made more fairly (Northouse, 2016). 


Relational Transparency

Fig. 10.

Revealing one’s self to others in a true manner contributes to one’s authenticity.  Hence, it is important that leaders are not just honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses, but that they are also honest with their followers.  This is achieved when leaders engage in open communication sharing their core feelings, motives, and inclinations (Northouse, 2016).  

Trust is an essential in leadership. Being trusted by management, peers and followers, is one of the strongest compliments and assets a leader can have, which helps to make the company, and organization stronger as a whole. 



Fig. 11.
Authentic Leadership Model 


According to the model of authentic leadership, a wide variety of variables influence the acquisition of the above-mentioned elements, which are instrumental in reaching authenticity.  The first variable involves one’s critical life events; this contains one’s memorable life experiences which have ultimately led to life changes (Northouse, 2016).  These life events can be negative, such as acquiring a serious illness, or positive, such as obtaining a new job (Northouse, 2016).  It is believed that as individuals live their life they are likely to experience these life events at different times and stages, therefore developing authentic leadership is a lifelong process that can be ever evolving (Northouse, 2016).

The second factor that is believed to impact authentic leadership is positive psychological attributes such as "confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience" (Northouse, 2016). Confidence is one’s belief that he/she is capable of doing a job. Confidence ultimately triggers higher levels of motivation, and determination in the face of hurdles (Northouse, 2016). Hope is a positive motivational state based on will power and goal planning.  Hope is what inspires followers to trust and believe in their goals. Optimism takes the form of positive future orientations and beliefs about one’s capabilities at accomplishing or achieving (Northouse, 2016).  Resilience involves the ability to positively adapt to and speedily recover when experiencing adversity and anguish (Northouse, 2016).  

Moral reasoning is yet another factor that can impact authentic leadership.  This reasoning allows for ethical decision making regarding concerns of right and wrong or good and bad.  Moral reasoning may take a lifetime to acquire and helps to align individuals toward a common goal.  Enhanced levels of moral reasoning are vital, as they allow leaders to look beyond personal gain and make decisions that lead to the greater good of society (Northouse, 2016). 


How the Theory Works   


Fig. 12. 



The theoretical approach to authentic leadership assumes that authentic leadership “works because leaders demonstrate self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency” (Northouse, 2016). These are inspired by a variety of critical life events and mature through an enduring “lifelong process” (Northouse, 2016).  As mentioned above, psychological characteristics and moral reasoning capacity have also been perceived to influence the development of authentic leadership (Northouse, 2016).   The practical approach also outlines characteristics that are vital for the development of authenticity in leaders (Northouse, 2016).  It offers five prescriptions that are necessary for the development of authenticity.  These include: “becoming more purposeful, value-centered, relational, self-disciplined, and compassionate” (Northouse, 2016). 

It is clear that both perspectives of theoretical and practical  authentic leaders provide prescriptions for individuals who wish to be perceived as authentic leaders (Northouse, 2016).  Both approaches nonetheless, stress the development and enhancement of these characteristics in leaders (Northouse, 2016).  Leaders are then to use these valuable learned characteristics to pursue goals that are important for the greater good of society and attempt to do the morally right thing (Northouse, 2016).  It is important to note that while the theory provides guidelines, research does not clearly illustrate the link between these prescriptions and the rise in authentic behavior (Northouse, 2016).   



Strong points of authentic leadership theory are: Criticisms of authentic leadership theory include: 
    • In a modern society where the public has less confidence in leadership, it satisfies a need to identify sound leadership and provide answers to the uncertainty wrought by failures of some contemporary leaders (Northouse, 2016).
    • It provides a roadmap for leaders desiring to become more authentic, via both the previously defined theoretical and practical approaches (Northouse, 2016).
    • Authentic leadership includes a moral and altruistic component which suggests that leaders understand and align themselves to what is best for the greater common good (Northouse, 2016).
    • Authenticity is not just a trait, but is a group of behaviors that can be learned or developed over the course of the leader’s life (Northouse, 2016).
    • It can be measured via the use of tool called the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ), which quantifies four factors of authentic leadership and will prove useful as this relatively young theory is further researched (Northouse, 2016). 

    • Because authentic leadership theory is relatively new, it suggests a number of unanswered questions which require additional exploration and validation through research (Northouse, 2016).
    • One area in particular, requiring further explanation is regarding the morality dimension and how the values of “justice and community” influence authentic leadership (Northouse, 2016).
    • Another area demanding further attention is the inclusion of the positive psychological capacities as core components of authentic leadership theory and whether they are superfluous to the basic construct of the theory, making it more difficult to measure (Northouse, 2016).
    • Finally, also due to lack of research to date, the relationship of authentic leadership to positive organizational outcomes is unknown, therefore bringing the validity and efficacy of the theory into question (Northouse, 2016). 



Fig. 13.
John Quincy Adams Leadership Quote

Authentic Leadership and Performance Outcomes

Academics have continuously contemplated whether a true relationship exists between authentic leadership and organizational outcomes, or follower effectiveness (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). Although the role of authentic leadership in achieving high levels of performance amongst followers has been questioned, Wang, Sui, Luthans, Wang, and Wu (2012) have indicated that research generally supports the role of the leader’s authenticity in enhancing employee enthusiasm and efficacy.  This may be because authentic leaders lead by example; They are steered by morality, equity, and truthfulness, which in turn stimulates comparable values and beliefs in followers-- leading them to behave in similar ways (Wang et al., 2012).   For example, it was observed that authentic leaders act as exemplars to their followers in order to instill in them a sense of accountability for delivering high-quality performance (Wang et al., 2012).  What’s more, experimental support of the link between authentic leadership and performance is now evolving.  A study by Walmbwa et al. (2008, 2011)  “recently found that authentic leadership behavior is positively related to supervisor-rated job performance, organizational citizenship behavior, and work engagement” (Wang et al., 2012).

 A more recent study by Wang et al. (2012) found that the relationship between authentic leadership and performance was mediated by the follower’s positive psychological capital.  Specifically, only when the employee psychological capital is low will an authentic leader, who himself holds a high level of psychological capital (in the form of optimism, resilience, hope, and confidence), contribute to the follower’s enhanced performance; in such a case the leader acts to “complement the lack of positive psychological capacities” of their followers (Wang et al., 2012).  On the other hand, those employees who are high on psychological capital are more likely to be motivated to perform irrespective of their leader’s authenticity (Wang et al., 2012).

The effect of leader authenticity on organizational outcomes has been perceived as increasing morality among followers.  In a study of MBA students, authentic leaders led to the suppression of followers unethical behaviors when they were confronted with temptation (Northouse, 2016).  In this manner, the leader acted as a “contextual factor” which limited unethicalness (Northouse, 2016).  From this study, there have been propositions about developing the elements of authentic leadership in organizational leaders in order to enhance ethical behavior (Northouse, 2016).

What's more, a study by Onorato and Zhu (2014) demonstrated the correlation between leader authenticity and employee’s trust in their organization.  When such trust is developed, it enhances an organization’s mission and its performance; this is because employees who perceive their leaders as authentic show “a sense of commitment and pride in their work…, increased engagement in exploring new ideas, a willingness to speak up about problems, make suggestions for changes, and a greater sensitivity to others' words and ideas" (Onorato & Zhu, 2014).


Biography of Bill George

Bill George is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. He is the author of four best-selling books: 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, Finding Your True North, and Authentic Leadership.  With co-author Doug Baker, he recently published True North Groups.

Mr. George is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic.  He joined Medtronic in 1989 as president and chief operating officer, was the chief executive officer from 1991-2001, and board chair from 1996-2002.  Earlier in his career, he was a senior executive with Honeywell and Litton Industries and served in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Mr. George currently serves as director of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and the Mayo Clinic and also served on the board of Novartis and Target Corporation.  He is currently a trustee of the World Economic Forum USA and Guthrie Theater and a former Trustee of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  He has served as board chair for Allina Health System, Abbott-Northwestern Hospital, United Way of the Greater Twin Cities, and Advamed.

He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012.  He has been named one of "Top 25 Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years" by PBS; "Executive of the Year-2001" by the Academy of Management; and "Director of the Year-2001-02" by the National Association of Corporate Directors.  Mr. George has made frequent appearances on television and radio and his articles have appeared in Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, and numerous publications.

Mr. George received his BSIE with high honors from Georgia Tech, his MBA with high distinction from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar, and honorary PhDs from Georgia Tech, Bryant University, and University of St. Thomas.  During 2002-03, he was a professor at IMD International and Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, and executive-in-residence at Yale School of Management.




Video: Bill George's Experience





Fig. 14.
True Self in Authentic Leadership



Comparison of Authentic Leadership With Other Theories

Authentic leadership has different characteristics from other theories of leadership that have similar concepts.  Authentic leadership is simplistic focusing on interactions with followers with a high degree of self-awareness (Murphy, 2012). When compared to transformational leadership, an authentic leader influence begins with an in depth understanding of self when they take a stance on a subject.  A transformational leader on the other hand is focused more on having a vision, empowering followers, and creating a relationship with followers to help them achieve more than what is expected (Northouse, 2016). Authentic leaders create meaning for themselves and others through self-awareness and self-regulation as opposed to charismatic leaders who use verbal persuasion to influence others.  Servant leaders inspire and empower followers be placing them first but lack the explicit presentation of the leader's “true self” (Northouse, 2016).  An authentic leader's main emphasis is on the importance of the altruistic, self-directive, genuine position of one's role as a leader (Waite et al., 2014).   



Chan, A. (2005). Authentic leadership measurement and development: Challenges and suggestions. In W.L. Gardner, B.J. Avolio, & F.O. Walumbwa (Eds.), Authentic leadership theory and practice: Origins, effects, and development (pp. 227-251). Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Ladkin, D., & Taylor, S. (2010). Enacting the true self: Towards a theory of embodied authentic leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 21(1) 64-74.

Murphy, L. (2012). Becoming and remaining an authentic nurse leader. Journal of Nursing Administration, 42(11), 507-512.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Onorato, M., Zhu, J. (2014).  An empirical study on the relationships between authentic leadership and organizational trust by industry segment.  Advanced Management Journal, 79(1), 26-39.

Pennsylvania State University (2015). Lesson 12: Authentic Leadership. Retrieved from 

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

Walumbwa, F., Luthans, F., Avey, J.B., and Oke, A. (2011).  Authentically leading groups: The mediating role of collective psychological capital and trust.  Journal of Management, 32, 4-24.

Wang, H., Sui, Y.,  Luthans, F.,  Wang,D.,  and Wu, Y. (2012).  Impact of authentic leadership on performance: Role of followers' positive psychological capital and relational processes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(1), 5-21. 

Waite, R., McKinney, N., Smith-Glasgow, M., & Meloy, F. (2014). The embodiment of authentic leadership. Journal of Professional Nursing, 30(4), 282-291.

 Video Reference

Good Leaders are Authentic Leaders [Video file]. (n.d.). Retrieved from



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