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Striving For Authentic Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tricia S. Nolfi
September 24, 2019

Several times a day, I watch or read the news and am equally delighted and discouraged at the time in which we live. Certainly, these are unique times where the public and its leaders are challenged to address complex problems and crises in new ways. Because we are facing unprecedented global issues and an increase in social and political upheavals, citizens are hungry for trustworthy and genuine leaders. They need authentic leaders.

Scholars Bruce J. Avolio, William L. Gardner, and Peter G. Northouse, 2019 note that authentic leaders exhibit genuine leadership and lead from conviction. They are true to themselves, demonstrating deep self-reflection and self-awareness. Authentic leaders are original and unique, striving to be their best selves and the behaviors they exhibit are grounded in positive psychological qualities and strong ethics. These behaviors reflect their strong emotional intelligence; being aware that emotions can drive our own behavior and impact others. Authentic leaders will use this awareness to lead in a positive manner, learning how to manage those emotions even in the most difficult of times. The authentic leader is a moral leader whose focus is on the collective good.

Are You an Authentic Leader?

Public sector leadership is dependent upon a relationship to those who serve and those being served. Being mindful of citizens’ needs and demands, leaders engage the public in solving problems and initiating change. Authentic leadership—a reciprocal process between leaders and followers—is desirable in the public sector. However, it is not always easy. It requires the balanced processing of information and relational transparency on the part of leaders. As noted by Caitlin P. Stein in a prior issue of PA Times, transparency means that citizens have an inherent right to know the truth about public issues. If that transparency fails to exist, so does the relationship. This complementary relationship lays the groundwork for leaders to focus on the greater good of the organization and the community.

Authentic leaders are reflective, reflexive critical thinkers who lead from conviction. They are genuine. They understand who they were, who they are becoming, and who they might become. They continually evaluate their role and behaviors in various contexts to align their values with their work. This allows them to be flexible in their leadership approach. Additionally, Seyyed Babak and Alavi C. Gill points out that authentic leaders not only embrace change but promote an environment where changing behaviors are encouraged. They not only focus on their own development but foster the growth of others by encouraging them to be true to who they are.  

Leaders with these types of characteristics are valued in the public sector as organizations continue to face complex challenges requiring new ways of thinking. For those aspiring to be an authentic leader, there are ways to develop the requisite competencies. It is not something that can happen overnight, but with commitment and willingness, can be achieved.

Developing the Capacity for Authentic Leadership

We all have the capacity to become an authentic leader, but getting there is a challenge. Always trying to do the “right” thing, being honest with yourself and transparent to others, and striving for the common good takes work. However, leveraging the benefits of personal and professional experiences can lead to growth and greater authenticity.

The following three strategies can serve as a starting point for developing authenticity in your leadership.

  • Assess Your Impact on Others: Authentic leadership is based on a reciprocal relationship with followers and an understanding of how your behavior affects others. This requires you to be open and transparent with others, acknowledging your faults, limitations, and fears. The authentic leader understands that her behavior impacts citizen attitudes, feelings, and beliefs.
    • What this looks like: Put yourself, “In others’ shoes,” so to better understand their perspective and the impact of your behaviors.
  • Keep a Personal Journal: Authentic leaders are self-aware. One way to focus on your emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values and goals is to keep a journal. Reflecting on specific situations and exploring your behaviors will help you identify areas for growth and improvement. Additionally, it will present an opportunity for you to look at how others were impacted by your actions and to take corrective action.
    • What this looks like: As you recognize your missteps or mistakes, apologize to those impacted and make amends.
  • Be Vulnerable: In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown notes that vulnerability—taking action when there is uncertainty and emotional exposure—is a sign of strong leadership. This means balancing what you think you should share or do with good self-management. Ask yourself critical questions such as, “What is my role?” “Does sharing this information make sense?” or, “Why is this important to me?” allows you to explore your vulnerability and the impact it has on others.
    • What this looks like: As you face a difficult challenge, don’t worry that you don’t have the insight or the answer to address it. Rather, be open about your difficulty and ask for help.

Striving to be an authentic leader is a lifelong learning process that calls for constant commitment and conviction. It requires continuous self-reflection and a focus on those whom you serve. As public servants, we owe it to our citizens to strive to be the very best versions of ourselves. Doing so will open up the opportunity for better relationships as we work together to address today’s complex problems.


Tricia S. Nolfi
Program Director, Assistant Professor II
Organizational Leadership Program
Higher Education Assessment, Analytics, and Change Management
Rider University
[email protected]
@TriciaNolfi (twitter)

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