How Does Authentic Leadership Theory Work?

According to the Harvard Business Review, authenticity has become the gold standard in leadership. And the good news is that virtually anyone can successfully fake it ‘til they make it. If you’re wondering how authentic leadership theory works, and how it stacks up against other methods, here are your answers. Keep reading to discover the key components of authenticity, the benefits of this style, and whether or not it’s right for your unique team. 

What is authentic leadership theory?

Authentic leadership theory is a set of qualities, values, and skills someone should possess if they want to be an effective project manager, business director, or team leader. If someone is an authentic leader, they’re known for being down to earth, genuine, and an all-around “good” person. Although being “good” is subjective, in terms of being in charge of a group or a project, there are a certain set of behaviors outlined in the authentic leadership theory that makes it tangible. 

Long story short: Authentic leadership theory defines the top most desirable qualities a leader can have as actionable behaviors anyone can develop over time. 

The four key components of authentic leadership theory include: 

  1. Self-awareness
    A leader should be familiar with both how they view themselves and how others see them. And perhaps most importantly, how their actions affect those around them for better or worse. 
  2. Transparency
    Having clear motives for every action is very important for authentic leadership. Strong communication skills are essential, along with tact. 
  3. Balance
    Being able to navigate the dynamics of teams, tasks, and project needs are essential in authentic leadership so that each area is served to the fullest without sacrificing another. 
  4. Strong sense of morality
    An inner compass that guides decision-making helps keep workplace discussions fair and equitable. 

What are the authentic leadership characteristics?

Created by Bill George, the authentic leadership theory is often depicted as a circle with the title in the middle and an outer layer broken up into five categories of linked ideas. They are:

  • Purpose tied to passion
  • Behavior based on values
  • Connectedness in relationships
  • Consistency built on self-discipline
  • Compassion from the heart

Each element describes an observable characteristic the leader should have in order to come off as honest and morally good. Being honest and morally good is desirable in leadership because it translates to a leader who can make decisions transparently, with a solid amount of empathy and altruism. 

What is not a characteristic of authentic leadership?

Having a bad attitude is not a characteristic of authentic leadership because being a great leader is similar to being a great role model. In fact, mindset plays a large role in the authentic leadership theory. Positive thinking, realistic optimism, and hope for an ideal outcome are learnable traits all authentic leaders should possess. 

Also, reversing the hierarchy of relationships like servant leadership is not part of this theory. Servant leadership is all about prioritizing customer-facing or entry-level roles. Rather than the group supporting the leader, the leader supports the group. 

Are there different authentic leadership styles?

Authentic leadership style looks different on everyone. Even though two leaders who practice the authentic leadership theory have the same values, when faced with the same scenario they may come to two different conclusions. Personality, culture, and experience also play a large role in who we are as people so it makes sense why there are so many different authentic leadership styles. 

What are the benefits of authentic leadership?

The main benefits of authentic leadership are: 

  • Increased job satisfaction among employees
    When leaders make each employee feel seen and heard, they’re likely to stick around longer. 
  • Better workplace conditions
    Who wouldn’t want to work under someone who sets clear expectations, makes fair decisions, and creates opportunities for growth? 
  • An emphasis on collaboration rather than individualism
    It’s often overlooked but connecting the work an individual does to the positive outcomes the entire group experiences helps people feel more fulfilled. 
  • Increased levels of inspiration, creativity, and productivity
    When employees are given a positive environment, they have more mental space to solve project challenges. 
  • Higher performance ratings overall 
    A strong, authentic leader will be the backbone of their team. This key foundational element makes it easier for everyone else to succeed which means more progress in less time. 

How  to know if authentic leadership will work for you

The best way to know if authentic leadership will work for you is if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how you can make yourself, your work, or your team better. Although there are other tactics that are similar to authentic leadership theory, this methodology is a great starting point for any team in any industry. Case in point: Martin Luther King Jr. 

Martin Luther King Jr. is often referred to as a shining example of authentic leadership. His grace, ethics, and inspiring rhetoric led one of the most powerful civil rights movements in American history. His actions displayed all of the qualities that make up an authentic leader and, in the end, brought millions of people from a variety of backgrounds together to create lasting change.

It’s well known that Martin Luther King Jr. is often compared to Malcolm X. Their goals were similar but their respective styles were vastly different. The oversimplified version: One man wanted change through peaceful politics within an established system, another through direct action using the lens of his tragic personal experiences. 

But they had one key characteristic in common: Both are known for their naturally authentic leadership styles. It’s as if being a leader is who they were born to be. And it shows in their words, their actions, and the relationships they created with others. 

Not everyone is born with these essential qualities like MLK Jr. and Malcolm X at the forefront of their personality. However, an aspiring leader can cultivate and become known for them over time within their own organizations. Even if you’re not leading a civil rights movement, you can have a powerful influence on the success of your project and team through the actionable tactics outlined in authentic leadership theory. 

What are the alternatives to the authentic leadership theory?

There are six main alternatives to the authentic leadership theory. Here are their definitions:

  1. The great man theory: Leaders are born, not made. Those in charge choose leaders or they are voted on by groups. 
  2. The trait theory: True leadership is a series of innate or learned traits. 
  3. The behavioral theory: If someone behaves like a leader, they are one. 
  4. The transactional theory: Performance is rewarded with power so the best of every team becomes the leader. 
  5. The transformational theory: Being well-liked by those you lead equals success. 
  6. The situational theory: Leaders improvise strategies to fit every new situation. 

Here are the similarities and differences these alternatives each have with authentic leadership theory: 

  • Some authentic leaders have natural abilities and strengths while others earn them over time, but both are valid. 
  • Authentic leadership prescribes to the same philosophy as trait theory but extends beyond checking a few boxes. 
  • The idea of how a leader should behave is ambiguous and hard to measure. Being an authentic leader can sometimes involve counterintuitive or unpopular decisions. 
  • Some people are great at doing the most important tasks but not so great at managing those who do them. Authentic leaders often take a holistic view of their team and plan accordingly.
  • Authentic leaders make decisions for the good of the group even if it makes them unpopular among the majority of members. 
  • Although authentic leaders must be flexible, this theory posits a set of ideologies that guide decision-making but don’t dictate it. 

Build better, more honest relationships

Authentic leaders prove their worth through their dedication to others and the honesty they show in their relationships. As you build these skills over time, remember to implement tools such as project management software to build trust through transparency in every aspect of your work together. 

Explore Wrike’s two-week free trial and discover tools that help you communicate more efficiently, keep leadership involved without slowing progress, and commit to authenticity through action.

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