Ways to take action

Authentic leadership and the story of your life

Sylvie Deffayet Davrout , Professor, Leadership Development Chair Director

Do you know who you really are? Do others? These questions are at the very core of authentic leadership. The definition of ‘authentic’ from Merriam Webster is: true to one's own personality, spirit,…

Reading time :
4 Jan 2018

Do you know who you really are? Do others? These questions are at the very core of authentic leadership. The definition of ‘authentic’ from Merriam Webster is: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character; is sincere and authentic with no pretensions. An authentic leader can be defined as a leader who knows their authentic self, takes action and behaves in a way that is consistent and in-line with their values and principles, empowers others, fosters transparency, is not afraid to challenge the status quo or make unpopular decisions for the greater good, and takes others into consideration.

It sounds like a tall order but the benefits are well worth it. Research shows that although many people can wing-it and get through a challenging situation, it is the authentic leader who, by operating consistently and transparently, drives long-term results. Through good times and bad, their integrity helps sustain organizational results and there is also a legitimacy that comes from being an authentic leader who has high self-awareness and takes actions in line with who they are. They come across as more trustworthy to employees. They also deliver results in a way that creates sustained value for their team. And let’s face it, it takes a lot less energy to just simply be ‘you’ than hiding parts of yourself or splitting your time between your ‘home’ self and your professional self.

So how do we embark on this journey? Through active reflection.  To become an authentic leader, we must develop our self-awareness. In order to become self-aware, examine self, self with others, and one’s experiences.

Through asking the question “How can people become and remain authentic leaders?”a study of 125 leaders aged 23 to 93 found that we do not have to be born with any universal trait to be a leader or in a high level position; regardless of style, authenticity was what made the participants more effective in their leadership, and; becoming an authentic leader emerged from the self-relevant meanings a leader attached to their life experiences. In this study, the authentic leaders reported that difficult life events had been their greatest transformers, leading to deep self-awareness. In the article, Bill George describes these moments as where “You learn what’s important, what you are prepared to sacrifice and what trade-offs you are willing to make.” If we think back to a challenging times in our lives, we may recognize it as a moment where we learned what we were capable of; where we weren’t equipped to handle the situation and needed to develop; we may have been able to identify which changes we wanted to see in the world or ourselves (what was acceptable or no longer acceptable).

The good news is it seems we are all on equal footing here. We are all individuals, with unique values, passions, ideals, and we all come with a one-of-a-kind life story – a long line of defining moments in our lives where we learnt more about who we were or who we wanted to be. We have had moments that influenced us and challenged our assumptions and values; moments that pulled things out of us that we didn’t know we were capable of. Moments where we were able to clearly draw a line of what was acceptable or unacceptable going forward. In each of our life stories, we have all had experiences and interactions – either momentary or long-lasting, good or bad or sometimes both.

And so take a good look at your own life story. Your experiences and relationships, your difficult moments, your triumphs. Take a good look at when you came to know something for certain – about yourself and your values. And then ask – Am I being true to what I know about who I am and what I value? How can I do it more? And it won’t necessary be easy but Bill George (2015) sums it up best in the following:

If you want to be an authentic leader and have a meaningful life, you need to do the difficult inner work to develop yourself, have a strong moral compass based on your beliefs and values, and work on problems that matter to you. When you look back on your life it may not be perfect, but it will be authentically yours.

1.  George, Bill, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer. 2007. “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership.” Harvard Business Review. February 1, 2007. 

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


Other items you may be
interested in


Regulation of artificial intelligence: how exactly do you regulate a technology like this?

  • Olga Kokshagina , Associate Professor
  • Stan Karanasios , Queensland Univ.
  • Pauline Reinecke , Hamburg Univ.

How better information campaigns could improve access to education for the most disadvantaged

  • Yenee Kim , Assistant Professor
  • Malobi Mukherjee , James Cook Univ.
  • Reetika Gupta , ESSEC