by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity.”

~ Professor Bill George in “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value” (2004)

What is authentic leadership? It could mean different things to different people. There is no standard definition, but in Part 1 of this topic, we shall first explore a few definitions submitted by various authors, researchers and practitioners, before I eventually expound on what Invictus Leader subscribes to in a later article.

Brain thinkingIn his book titled, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value,1 Harvard Business School Professor Bill George describes authentic leaders as those who demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practise their values consistently, and lead with both their hearts and heads. Besides knowing their own selves well, authentic leaders are also able to build meaningful, long-term relationships with others while possessing the self-discipline to ensure results. George sums up the aforementioned attributes as the 5 essential dimensions of authentic leaders: purpose, values, heart, relationships, self-discipline.

What I find compelling about George’s overview of authentic leadership is the delicate balance between the heart and head. Too much head will cause the leader’s relationship with his team members to be formal and impersonal like that of a doctor and his outpatient. On the other hand, too much heart means that the relationship between the leader and his followers may get too informal and personal that he finds it hard to implement stern corrective action.

By now you might be thinking: Hmmm… those attributes of authentic leadership don’t sound new; in fact, they sound very familiar and not too different from what you or other leaders are already advocating.

So your mind is wondering:  Is authentic leadership just another leadership fad? Is it merely a leadership buzzword promoted by leadership gurus in their bid to outshine one another? Or merely an excuse for consultants to propose additional training and coaching hours?

Counterfeit vs Authentic Leadership

You’re right in the sense that authentic leadership is not a recent concept. Perhaps its relative longevity bears testament to its authenticity (no pun intended), that it has proven its value while standing the test of time.

Mask and womanBack in 1997, Ken Shelton had authored a relatively obscure book, Beyond Counterfeit Leadership: How You Can Be an Authentic Leader (foreword by Warren Bennis).2 Drawing from over 30 years of his personal experience and observation, Shelton accentuates the meaning of authentic leadership by coining the term “counterfeit leadership” as a contrast. Shelton warns that beneath their pseudo leadership facade that appears strong and capable on the exterior, counterfeit leaders are self-centred at heart, exuding a destructive nature that corrodes the corporate culture and alienates others. Unfortunately, the media and society are often deceived by these counterfeit leaders who know how to be persuasive, charming and highly visible.

5 I’s of Authentic Leadership

Michael Hyatt has a simple but interesting take on authentic leadership. Hyatt is known as the author of Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World – a bestseller on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Amazon. Though the book is not about authentic leadership, elsewhere Hyatt has proposed what he calls the 5 marks of authentic leadership: insight, initiative, influence, impact, integrity.3

The following is a summary of Hyatt’s 5 marks of authentic leadership:

1.  Insight. This goes beyond vision because vision alludes to something of the future, whereas insight encompasses wisdom and discernment that is critical throughout an ongoing basis.

2.  Initiative. Authentic leaders don’t ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do. They lead the way as an example.

3. Influence. Just like influenza, leaders influence others in a contagious way. People “catch” what their authentic leader has, and they are mobilized to create the positive change that generates results.

4. Impact. Authentic leaders bring about real and lasting change. Leaders who don’t create significant shifts are merely entertainers whose actions lag behind their words.

Integrity word on laptop5. Integrity. The critical differentiator between an authentic leader and a counterfeit one is integrity. Leaders such as Hitler, Mao and Stalin had great insight, initiative, influence and impact, but lacked integrity. Their lives were not integrated with the highest values. As such, integrity may be viewed as the foundation of authentic leadership.

Why Authentic Leadership?

The wave of scandals – in both the public and private sectors – that we read about in the news has roots that can often be traced back to the lack of authentic leadership. We can have all the laws we want, and more new guidelines every now and then to regulate government bodies and business corporations, but these alone will not prevent mismanagement and corrupt practices. More importantly than man-made rules, we need real men, real leaders who are genuine and responsible. Such authentic leaders are bound to face moral dilemmas and resistance to change when they try to instill ethical values and enforce good governance at their workplace.

Mission-driven versus financially oriented

The bottom line for all for-profit business corporations is to create shareholder value. One would think that financially oriented companies are able to create high shareholder value, given their expertise and emphasis on financial accountability.

Not so. Professor Bill George asserts that it is the authentic leaders in mission-driven companies who can help create outstanding shareholder value. During George’s 12 years at Medtronic, the company’s market capitalization sprang from US$1.1 billion to a whopping US$460 billion, an impressive average of 35% per year, thanks to the 5 essential dimensions of authentic leaders, which he fully subscribed to.


Here are some questions that you might like to reflect on in your quest of discovering what authentic leadership is about, and how it affects you:

  • What should I do when my corporation’s values come in conflict with my personal values?
  • How do I balance the priorities of the corporation’s customers, employees and shareholders? Which stakeholder’s interest should take precedence?
  • Am I devoting all my skills and time to serving my corporation per se, or for a higher cause beyond this?


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Photo credit

Image 1 courtesy of Samuiblue

Image 2 courtesy of George Hodan

Image 3 courtesy of Stuart Miles