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What is authentic leadership theory?

Authentic leadership focuses on the authenticity of the leaders and their leadership (Northouse, 2016 p. 195). There are three ways to define authentic leadership: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and developmental.

Authentic leadership from the intrapersonal perspective refers to what goes on with the leader. This perspective outlines the leader’s self-knowledge, self-regulation, and self-concept (Northouse, 2016 p. 196) (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). Based on the intrapersonal perspective Shamir and Eilam’s (2005) description believes authentic leaders portray genuine leadership, lead from conviction and are being true to themselves as a leader  (Northouse, 2016 p. 196). This approach accentuates a leader’s life experience since those experiences help develop an authentic leader.

The second perspective of an authentic leadership is interpersonal which focuses on the connection and relationship between leaders and followers (Eagly, 2005) (Northouse, 2016 p. 196). The authenticity from the interpersonal perspective derives from the interactions between the leaders and followers. Leaders affect followers just as much as followers affect leaders (Northouse, 2016 p. 196).

Authentic leadership can also be illustrated from a developmental perspective, which explains Avolio and Gardner’s research. In the developmental approach, authentic leadership can be nurtured in a leader (Northouse, 2016 p. 196). Authentic leadership develops in leaders overtime due to major life events such as illness or new career (Northouse, 2016 p. 196).


Practical vs. Theoretical Approach 

There are two approaches to authentic leadership: practical and theoretical. The practical approach develops from real-life examples. In additional, this approach takes an “inductive reasoning approach which evidence is utilized to establish a theory or explanation” (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). The theoretical approach refers to evaluation from social science research (Northouse, 2016 p. 197). In other words, this approach uses a deductive reasoning approach in which a theory is established and the theory gets tested (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership).

Practical Approach 

There are two major practical approaches to authentic leadership: Authentic Leadership Wheel (Terry, 1993) and Authentic Leadership Approach (George, 2003). Both approaches discuss how to develop authentic leadership.

Terry’s approach to authentic leadership refers to the problems in an organization and ways to fix the problems. The wheel consists of six components: meaning, mission, power, structure, resources, and existence (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). If all six components are completed, fulfillment will occur. Therefore, the wheel including fulfillment are necessary components for an authentic leadership to occur in an organization (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). However, if any of the components are incomplete, fulfillment does not occur and authentic leadership is not possible.

George’s authentic leadership approach focuses on the characteristics of authentic leaders. George suggests that individuals can develop these qualities in order to become authentic leaders. Based on approach, George discovered that authentic leaders want to serve others, know themselves, and lead from their core values (Northouse, 2016 p. 197). George identified five basic dimensions of authentic leadership - purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline, and heart (Northouse, 2016 p. 197). Each of the dimensions is related to characteristics – passion, behavior, connectedness, consistency, and compassion (Northouse, 2016 p. 197). Leaders would need to develop these characteristics to become authentic leaders. Characteristics are observable outcomes whereas dimensions are unobservable qualities (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership).

George suggests that authentic leaders have a purpose. These leaders “know what they are about and what they are going” (Northouse, 2016 p. 197). Authentic leaders are motivated based on their goals. Authentic leaders are passionate that care about their work. For instance, Terry Fox, a cancer survivor decided to raise awareness and raise money for cancer research by attempting to run across Canada. Although he was not able to complete his goal, he affected millions of individuals. He had the ability to raise cancer awareness and money for cancer research. There was a foundation created after him that has raised more than $400 million for cancer research (Northouse, 2016 p. 198).

Authentic leaders understand their values and behavior towards others (Northouse, 2016 p. 198). These leaders know what is the right thing to do. Whenever authentic leaders are faced with a difficult situation, they use the situation to strength their values (Northouse, 2016 p. 198). Authentic leaders must have the ability to open up and establish relationships and a connection to others  (Northouse, 2016 p. 199). Authentic leaders are willing to share their experiences and listen to others. Through a mutual connection, leaders and followers develop a relationship filled with trust and closeness. George suggests that followers want a trusting relationship with their leaders, which will provide leaders with loyalty and commitment (Northouse, 2016 p. 199).

Self-discipline helps leaders reach their goals when it gives leaders focus and determination  (Northouse, 2016 p. 199). Leaders must create objectives in which self-discipline helps the leader achieve goals. Self-discipline allows leaders the ability to remain consistent (Northouse, 2016 p. 200). Authentic leaders are easy to communication with when their behavior is predictable. When leaders demonstrate self-directed, it gives followers a sense of security  (Northouse, 2016 p. 200).

Compassion focuses on a leader’s sensitivity to others and being open to others and willing to help others  (Northouse, 2016 p. 199). Compassion leads to the characteristic of heart. When leaders develop compassion they become an authentic leader. Leaders can develop compassion when they connect with others or if they are involved with community projects, etc. Activities that develop compassion can increase sensitivity within a leader about other cultures and backgrounds  (Northouse, 2016 p. 200s).

Theoretical Approach 

The theoretical approach focuses on numerous ideas and concepts of an authentic leadership and how the components relate to each other (Northouse, 2016 p. 200). The theoretical approach has antecedent conditions for authentic leadership prior to the developmental process, which includes positive psychological capacities and moral reasoning (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). These factors determine how a leader would react in an event. If the leader properly fulfills the capacities, the leader will develop qualities for authentic leadership: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership).

Self-awareness focuses on the insightfulness of the leaderThis also refers to when a leader reflects on their values, identity, emotions, motives, and goals (Northouse, 2016 p. 203). When a leader has the ability to understand what they stand for, they are better at decision-making. Internalized moral perspective reflects on a self-regulatory process in which individuals utilize their internal standards to guide their own behavior. This perspective is refers to as a self-regulatory process since people have control over the influence others have on them (Northouse, 2016 p. 203). Leaders that consist of moral perspective are considered authentic when their actions align with their beliefs. Balanced processing is another self-regulatory behavior. This focuses on the individual’s ability to analyze information and consider other’s opinion prior to decision-making (Northouse, 2016 p. 203). Relational transparency focuses on honesty and being true to others. This component is considered self-regulatory since individuals control their transparency with others (Northouse, 2016 p. 203). Relational transparency refers to communicating and being real with others.

Factors that Influence Authentic Leadership 

Factors such as positive psychological capacities (confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience), moral reasoning, and critical life events that effect authentic leadership.

Confidence refers to believing in them to successfully accomplish a goal or task. When leaders have self-confidence, they are more likely to succeed and welcome a challenge. Hope focuses on the motivational state that revolves around goal planning. When leaders develop hope, followers will develop trust in their leaders and believe in their goals (Northouse, 2016 p. 204). Optimism focuses on the cognitive process of seeing a situation from a positive standpoint and have high expectations about the outcome (Northouse, 2016 p. 204). Resilience refers to the ability to recover from a situation, which includes adapting well from a hardship. When individuals are going through a tough time, resilient individuals to use the situation to strengthened and become more resourceful due to the situation (Northouse, 2016 p. 204).

Moral reasoning is something an individual develops throughout their lifetime. This refers to when an individual has the capacity to make the right decision and understand the different from right and wrong (Northouse, 2016 p. 204). High levels of moral reasoning give leaders the capability to make decisions that allow all individuals work towards a common goal. Moral reasoning has the ability to enable leaders to become selfless and make judgment that greater the overall group or organization (Northouse, 2016 p. 204).  

Critical life events refer to major events that effect people’s lives. These life events can either be positive or negative events. For example, a positive event can entail receiving a promotion or having a child (Northouse, 2016 p. 205). A negative event includes a negative year-end evaluation. When leaders discuss their life events, they increase their self-knowledge and clarity about who they are and a better understanding of their role (Northouse, 2016 p. 205). When leaders comprehend their own experiences, they become authentic.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Authentic Leadership Theory

The Authentic Leadership Theory helps build a theory about trust in leadership which addresses the public. In addition, the theory explains the practical and theoretical reasons of why this theory is considered to be valid despite not being fully developed (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership).   The authentic leadership theory can also be measured especially when refining the practical and theoretical reasoning (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership).

Although the authentic leadership theory provides a lot of characteristics to help leaders become authentic, there are a few flaws to this theory. For instance, the theory is not fully developed in which the theory lacks in some areas such the moral component (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). In addition, the theory does not explain the positive psychological capacities and the research may later determine those capacities are not relevant to the theory. Since the theory is still being developed, it has not made a connection to the positive organizational outcomes (Penn State University, 2018- Authentic Leadership). If the researchers cannot find a positive outcome, this theory may not be useful.

Authentic Leadership Video 

Below is an authentic leadership video that can help summarize the theory.


Authentic Leadership. (2018). Retrieved from

Caicedo, C. (2012, August 05). Intrapersonal. Retrieved from

Developmental Biology. (2018). Retrieved from

Interpersonal Relationships. (2018). Retrieved from 

Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Pennsylvania State University (2018). Lesson 12: Authentic Leadership. Retrieved from 

Nadeesha, R. (2016, November 15). Authentic leadership. Retrieved from,wn



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