The REAL Definition of Authentic Leadership

I write and speak often on the topic of “Authentic Leadership” and I have a clear understanding of what that means …. to me.

As it turns out however, not everyone has the same understanding. In fact, there are just about as many opinions on the definition of Authentic Leadership as there are people in the world.

I wrote a post titled “What Authentic Leadership Looks Like” a couple of week ago and gave examples of characteristics of authentic leaders. I decided to go with “looks like” for the very reason that defining “authentic” leadership is very hard to do.

In his 2003 book entitled Authentic Leadership, Bill George said that authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine, they are mission driven and focused on results and that they lead with their heart. 

I admire and respect Bill George, he is by any definition, at least my definition, an authentic leader. The characteristics he describes however have little more to do with being authentic than the characteristics I wrote about. They have to do with being a genuinely decent, successful person. Whether or not you’re a leader.

I have come to the conclusion that I have been misusing the term “Authentic Leader.”

Here is the dictionary definition of “authentic:” 


of undisputed origin; genuine.
“the letter is now accepted as an authentic document”
synonyms: genuine, real, bona fide, true, veritable; legitimate, lawful, legal, valid; informal the real McCoy, the real thing, kosher

“an authentic document”

Authentic basically means real. If we define leadership in the simplest of terms we would say that leadership is influence. Put the two together and we have something very different than most people mean when they say “Authentic Leader.” 

There have been people of great influence who were real creeps. Some truly bad people who were true to their own warped sense of values who also had great impact on their followers and even the world. They were, by the most accurate definition, authentic leaders.

When people like me, who speak and write about leadership use the term Authentic Leadership we imply all sorts of stuff that may or may not be true. We have sort of hijacked the word authentic and redefined it as “good” or “honorable” or “caring.” 

After a discussion this week with a few leaders I admire I have decided to add a second adjective to the phrase “Authentic Leader,” it may be Authentic Servant Leader, or Authentic Effective Leader, or maybe Authentic Caring Leader, but this much seems certain, simply using “authentic” isn’t enough to describe what I have in mind when I say Authentic Leadership. 

It appears that the real definition of Authentic Leadership exists only in the minds of the people who use or accept the term. If your definition is different than mine then we have a communication gap, I think using one extra word will build a strong bridge across that gap.

What do you think, can one extra word make a difference that matters?   

6 thoughts on “The REAL Definition of Authentic Leadership

  1. Important distinctions nowadays Steve.

    I imagine that many of us who use the term authentic stems from an attempt to make the distinction between someone we consider to be a legitimate, REAL, and decent leader as opposed to someone who is either a terrible leader or in some cases…a ‘wannabe’ leader. Someone who doesn’t seem to know how to lead. Or confused talking about leadership with actually leading….real people….in real life! : )

    When I read the part where you were talking about ‘there have been people of great influence who were real creeps’, it reminded me of my very first post I wrote on leadership over a year ago: Reflections On What It Means to Be A Leader >>

    BTW: I added your post here as a resource to the end of mine. : ) >> hence the idea of ‘tweet connection’. : )

    I like your idea of adding ‘servant’ to authentic. It clearly separates poor leadership in all its many forms to leaders who sincerely care about people and have a mission to serve instead of being served.

    Thanks for sharing Steve.

    1. Thanks for sharing my post. This post came out of a couple of conversations about a previous post about authentic leadership. It became clear that what. I thought of as “authentic” had nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word.

      But your exactly right, we “know” what we mean 🙂

  2. I’m going to start saying real or something else. Authentic is platitudinous. Overused. Losing it’s impact. Jumped the shark. In my opinion.

    Call it whatever you want, you know what’s real when you see it.

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