IT CONTINUES to surprise me when I observe how many leaders have one persona at work and another — their “true” personality — outside work. These same leaders seem shocked or confused when their employees don’t trust them, don’t like them, and can’t really wait to work elsewhere.

The quality of authenticity has been explored throughout history by Greek philosophers and literary geniuses like William Shakespeare, whose character Polonius (in the play Hamlet) offers his son the now-famous piece of advice: “To thy own self be true.

Authentic leadership has been explored sporadically as part of modern management science, but has found its highest levels of acceptance since Bill George’s 2003 book, Authentic Leadership.


Demystifying authentic leadership

But what is authentic leadership? How can you become and remain an authentic leader? Are organisations choosing and developing the right people to lead?

Authentic leaders, according to Mr George, genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. They are interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference more than they are interested in power, money or prestige for themselves.

They are guided equally by their heart and mind, offering guidance grounded in passion and compassion, as well as thoughtful leadership. They lead with purpose, meaning and values. And their people relationships are extremely strong.

People follow them because they are consistent, reliable and strong. They will not compromise on their beliefs and values, and are dedicated to personal growth and learning because they believe that becoming a leader takes a lifetime.

Authentic leadership encourages individuals to investigate their pasts, identify key defining moments in their lives that helped shape who they are, and use these as springboards to identify their individual, authentic leadership purposes. While leadership is very personal and different for everyone, there are three common elements:

  Authentic leaders demonstrate ontological humility: They are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses for fear of looking weak. They also realise that self-actualisation is an endless journey.

  Authentic leaders are mission-driven and focused on results: They are able to put the interests of their people at the centre of their business strategy. Highly engaged and motivated employees make the difference between a truly successful organisation and a mediocre entity because they are the drivers of customer engagement.

Authentic leaders are able to put the mission and the goals of the organisation ahead of their self-interest. They do the job in pursuit of results, not for their own power, money or ego.

  Authentic leaders lead with their hearts, not just their minds: They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are “soft. They leverage on socialised power and not personalised power. They are able to demonstrate social intelligence competencies. When the situation warrants it, they communicate in a highly impactful and direct manner that is critical to successful outcomes, but they do so with empathy.


Purpose and values

Rajeev Peshawaria in his book, Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, clearly states that the essence of authentic leadership is to create a future that is better than the present. Purpose and values are the guides that help leaders to pursue it.

Your purpose and values define your leadership identity, and give you the energy you need to stay the course. The only way to define your purpose and values is to ask yourself some tough questions and answer them honestly. Answers may not come to you right away, so you have to keep asking the questions until you find the answers that are right for you.

To sum up, first, you need to have clarity of personal purpose. After that, you have to imagine a better future. Once a clear picture of the desired future takes place in your mind, you must determine the values that will guide you in pursuing it. They will help you go the distance and resolve difficult dilemmas along the way.

To quote Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”



Article by Professor Sattar Bawany, chief executive officer and C-Suite master executive coach of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE Global). CEE is a premier network for established human resource development and designs solutions for leaders who will navigate their firms through tomorrow’s business challenges. For more information, e-mail or visit