Creating the Authentic Leader

Once upon a time the only expectation on a leader was that they generated profit for the business. Whilst shareholders are certainly still interested in the bottom line, we now know that the success of the business is much more complicated than that. Employees don’t have ‘job’s for life’ and expect more than just a pay check for their hard work. With many more options available to people, businesses must work hard to ensure they have the best people, which ultimately results in the best results. Employees, as well as customers, are interested in how sustainable and ethically an organisation behaves and even expect them to have a stance on political matters.

All of this means that leaders need to be not just savvy business people, but need to be able to relate to their employees and the public at large. So, what does the ideal leader look like? Back in the late 90’s early 2000’s there was a lot of research into Transactional versus Transformational leadership styles, where transactional leaders focused on their employee’s immediate self-interests and extrinsic rewards whereas transformational leaders were interested in the motivation and morale of their staff. They fostered autonomy and created challenges with a focus on the intrinsic rewards for the employee.

In considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it could be suggested that transactional leadership styles satisfy the lower levels of the hierarchy – ensuring employees most basic needs are being met. In times of depression or high unemployment this has been perfectly acceptable, as just having basic needs met during those times was viewed as being fortunate. Today, however, having those basic needs met is taken for granted and people are looking for much more out of their lives and careers. Employees want to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of accomplishment, and that they are working for something much bigger than themselves.


At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualisation. According to Maslow, the highest need people have is that of self-fulfilment and to become everything they’re capable of being. Out of this, has come the idea of authenticity, or being true to oneself, and that an authentic leader – one who is self-aware, transparent, objective in their decision making, and who always acts within their own values – is well-placed to help their employees achieve self-actualisation.

But Can Authenticity be Learned?

Given the point of authenticity is that one is being true to themselves, some may argue that a leader cannot learn to become authentic. But the research says otherwise. Shamir and Eilam found that life stories can be used to develop authentic leadership by examining the meaning that leaders attach to events that have occurred throughout their careers. Life stories is a coaching tool where participants write down or talk about how they got to where they are with an emphasis on key milestones along the way that shaped who they are. Leaders may be surprised when they take the time to reflect on the influences and this realisation can be a catalyst for change in those who may find they are not behaving authentically.

A large part of acting authentically is being self-aware. Self-awareness can come about through self-reflection, through coaching questions that encourage self-reflection, or through 360 degree assessments, which seek feedback from the people who work closest to the leader.

For the most part, leaders will know whether they are authentic or not. What they may not realise, is that their people also know and this has a great impact on their commitment and motivation. A leader who is motivated to succeed will be motivated to change, and this is the first, and arguably, most important step.


Bass, B.M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Shamir, B. & Eilam, G. (2005). “What’s your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 395-417.

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, 89–126.

#leadership #authenticleadership #management #positivepsychology #maslow #hierarchyofneeds