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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

Positive Leadership: How to be an Authentic Leader

It has been a while since Jensen and Luthans (2006) found the employee’s perception of authentic leadership to be the strongest single predictor of employee job satisfaction, organisational commitment and work happiness. And while these findings and the concept of authentic leadership are rather theoretical, there are great examples of authentic leaders. There is no single personality trait or attitude they have common, but they are not too difficult to spot once we understand more about what may constitute an authentic leader.

Within the field of positive psychology, authenticity has been defined as “owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, preferences or beliefs, processes captured by the injunction to know oneself and” (Seligman, 2002). This translates to being oneself, as literature across different fields agrees.

Yet when it comes to defining authentic leadership, authors disagree as to whether it encompasses the elements of positive psychological capital (hope, optimism, self-efficacy and resilience), and whether an ethical element needs to be present (Shamir & Eilam, 2005; Sparrowe, 2005).

The majority of authors, however, agree that authentic leadership goes far beyond being true to oneself (Ilies, Morgeson, & Nahrgang, 2005). Jensen and Luthans (2006), for instance, mention three additional characteristics that can be found in authentic leaders:

  1. They are motivated by personal convictions rather than attaining status or personal benefits

  2. They are originals rather than the copy of someone else

  3. The actions of authentic leaders are based on their personal values

These characteristics show that irrelevant of the leadership style they prefer, authentic leaders need to act in accordance with deep personal values in order to gain the trust and respect of others (B. J. Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, & May, 2004).

An example of authentic leadership

Looking at these characteristics, are you able to identify an authentic leader in your work environment? I was very fortunate to have worked for an authentic leader, his name is Bruno, who showed me and my colleagues how to put this theory into practice.

Being the CEO of an SME, Bruno would invite his management team for dinner at least once a year. But, he wouldn’t book a fancy restaurant. Instead, he would invite the team of five into the intimacy of his small two bedroom apartment, where he would cook for us.

During the evening and the three courses of freshly cooked seafood, steak, and chocolate fondant (he is a passionate cook), we got to know him much better than we would have in any well-known, expensive restaurant. Rather than trying to impress us, he simply gave us the chance to see behind the curtains. Of course, we expected to get to know the “private” Bruno.

Yet what we found behind the curtains was no different to what we already knew from the stage: Bruno was no different with us in his little home than he was in the office. And it was strangely touching yet refreshing to see how he lived, in an old building in a small apartment with a fold-in bed.

There was no need for him to pretend that he lived in an expensive mansion, being the CEO. And he was not proud of living a simple lifestyle either. He was just himself. A humble person who valued his management team and was not afraid of letting them into his privacy. Because he did not base his authority or role on anything other than his humble person. He did not have to put on a face. As always, he was truly himself.

Bill George (2007) illustrates this idea of not wearing different masks in his book “True North”. He challenges the reader to think of their life as a house, with the family being the living room, the personal life bein the bedroom and the professional life being the study. He then asks the question: Can you knock down the walls and be the same person in all rooms? Can you walk from one room to the next without having to change who you are?

But being an authentic leader also means building on the past, embracing one’s own life story and learning from it. George (2007) points out how Daniel Vasella, former CEO of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, managed to turn his difficult childhood around. He had lost one sister to cancer, another one died in an accident and his father died during surgery. This profound experience affirmed Vasella in his plan to become a doctor.

He got a PhD in medicine which he complemented with a management degree from Harvard Business School. While Vasella was often criticised for his high salary, he owned the reputation of an ethical leader who managed to build a corporate culture around compassion, competence, and competition (George, 2007). Rather than disclaiming his past, he built on his life story.

But leadership is not just about the leader, but also the team. A leader can inspire and motivate others by being a role model. Leaders have to go first, and they have to believe in their team before they do.

“The largest developmental impact was raising the positive beliefs of followers, instilling in them the cnviction that they were better at a performance task than they thought.” – B.J. Avolio and Gardner (2005)


Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.

Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. L., & May, D. R. (2004). Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 15, 801-823.

George, B. (2007). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ilies, R., Morgeson, F. P., & Nahrgang, J. D. (2005). Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: Unterstanding leader-follower outcomes. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 373-394.

Jensen, S. M., & Luthans, F. (2006). Entrepreneurs as authentic leaders: impact on employees’ attitudes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(8), 646-666.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happines: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

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

Sparrowe, R. T. (2005). Authentic Leadership and the narrative self. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 419-439.

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