Authentic Leadership

Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow

Authentic Leadership - Being a Leader That People Want to Follow

© iStockphoto

Do people want to follow you?

You've probably heard of "authentic leadership." Books, leadership courses, and entire businesses have been built around this idea. But it's often easier to identify authentic leaders than it is to define what makes them that way.

So what do the words "authentic leader" actually mean? What makes a leader authentic, and why is it worth the effort?

There are many different answers to these questions. In this article, we'll discuss why authenticity is so important, and we'll examine the different characteristics that make someone authentic as a leader.  

Why Authentic Leadership?

Leadership today is very different from leadership in previous generations. The old "top-down" style of management just doesn't work anymore. People generally want to be fully engaged, and committed to what they're doing. They want to feel as if their work matters. And they want to believe in the people who are in charge.

Because of these higher expectations, it's vital for leaders to know how to inspire passion and confidence in the people they're leading. When people work alongside a truly authentic leader, they'll often give their whole hearts and minds to the cause. In these situations, a spirit of teamwork and loyalty can spread throughout an organization, resulting in high morale and producing extraordinary results.

We are all inspired by different traits, actions and characteristics, but names that feature regularly on lists of authentic leaders, past and present, include the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Authentic leaders inspire trust in their teams. People are more willing to be open about problems, which means that those problems are more likely to get fixed, instead of being ignored.

What Is Authentic Leadership?

So, authentic leadership can inspire people to pull together, work hard, and communicate. But how do you lead in an authentic way? What does this involve?

There's no easy answer to these questions, because authenticity can mean many different things and involve a wide range of skills, actions, and behaviors. At its root, however, authentic leadership is all about behaving with integrity, and being consistent.

For example, authentic leaders inspire those they lead because they stay true to their own values. They know who they are, and they don't let anyone keep them from making a decision that they know is right. They have integrity and a firm moral code, and they manage to stay sensible and stable even during the most difficult times.

How to Lead Authentically

The path to this type of leadership is not straight and well-defined. As we said earlier, it involves many different skills, traits and actions. But, by focusing on some of the most common characteristics, you can start down your own path toward authentic leadership.

Let's look at some main themes – ethics, power, communication, and the organization – and examine how you could start developing these on your own.


Authentic leaders are ethical leaders. They've identified their ethical codes, and they never compromise on what they believe to be right and wrong.

If you'd like some help identifying your own ethics and values, our article Ethical Leadership is a great starting point; and our Book Insight into "Winners Never Cheat" by Jon Huntsman reviews a book that shows why being ethical matters so very much.


All leaders have power. But authentic leaders know how to use the right kind of power – for the good of the group, and for the goal that needs to be achieved.

There are several different kinds of power. One type is expert power. When you have expert power, your team looks up to you because of your skills, knowledge and experience. Learn how to build and use this type of power with our article on Expert Power.

Authentic leaders also use the power of example. When leaders do as they say, they gain the respect and admiration of their teams. Learn more about this in our article, Leading by Example.

Authentic leaders don't just know what type of power to use in a given situation. They also understand power – where it comes from, and how to use it to get things done. Our article on French and Raven's Five Forms of Power explores the various different types of power in the workplace, and explains how to use the good forms and avoid the bad.


Authentic leaders are excellent communicators. They use a number of different communication strategies to pass along their values, inspire their teams, and give clear instructions.

They may use storytelling as an effective way to communicate an important message. Stories can inspire a team to work harder – and, when done right, stories can change an entire corporate culture by creating "legends." Our article on Business Storytelling shows you how to start telling great stories in your organization.

Communication requires "give and take." Authentic leaders understand that the world isn't just about them, and they listen actively to other people and accept good advice, no matter where it comes from or who gives it.

Good communication also involves feedback. It can be incredibly difficult for leaders to get the feedback they need to improve (no one wants to tell the CEO that his idea stinks!). But authentic leaders work hard to create a culture of open communication. They know they are not perfect, and they hire people who are willing to tell them so.

Our article, How to Handle Criticism, can help you to improve in this areas.

The Organization

We've probably all seen leaders who only look out for themselves, instead of their organization and the people they're leading. Authentic leaders, however, never forget that they have an enormous responsibility. They put their companies and their people first.

A leader's goals should be aligned with company goals. When these two areas are not aligned, the focus becomes divided. Learn more about aligning your goals with your organization's goals in our article on Management By Objectives.

Authentic leaders also know what truly drives their companies and their teams.

Why is this important? Well, if you don't know the drivers that are key to performance, then you'll probably never find out what's wrong when your company or team isn't "working." The Congruence Model can help you to discover the four key components of your organization, and to make sure that they're aligned for success.


Read Bruna Martinuzzi's article The Talisman of Leadership – Authenticity for a discussion of authentic leadership, based on emotional intelligence.

Key Points

Authentic leadership involves a lot of different things. And developing the skills and characteristics needed is a journey, not a destination.

Authentic leaders are often easier to recognize than to define, but they all have a few traits in common. They know themselves well, and they never allow someone else to cause them to break their moral codes. They put their companies and their teams first, they're excellent communicators, and they know how to use the right kind of power for the right situation.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Show Ratings Hide Ratings


Rate this resource

Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi aruna_,

    Thank you for letting us know how much you enjoyed the resource. We look forward to hearing more from you.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago aruna_ wrote
    Thanks for the feedabck. look forward to get more thoughts
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi EdwinR,

    I see a pattern in the articles you are reading :-). Like transformational leaders, authentic leaders are great communicators and know how to motivate employees to achieve exceptional results. Story telling is a form of communication that both of these leadership styles use to create an emotional connection and build trust.

    Mind Tools Team
View All Comments