John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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7. Effective leadership requires personal authenticity


Personal authenticity is the extent to which what a person believes is consistently reflected in what they say and in what they do. One of the factors that is central to any notion of effectiveness is consistency both over time and across different situations.  For Taylor (1991:29) authenticity is about developing a personal integrity:

            Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself.

Robinson (2013:21) reinforces the centrality and significance of personal authenticity, which he describes as the ‘Element’:

The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion . . . Being in their element takes them beyond the ordinary experiences of enjoyment or happiness . . . When people are in their element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they are meant to be doing with their lives.


Leadership development therefore might be seen as the process of becoming personally authentic. In essence to become a leader is to become an authentic person and that involves realising my full capacity as self. Guignon (2004:162) describes this as:

            …centering in on your own inner self, getting in touch with your feelings, desires and beliefs, and expressing those feelings, desires and beliefs in all you do…defining and realizing your own identity as a person.

Authenticity is the result of the integration and interaction of three variables – values, language and actions.

Values are the translation of ethical principles into a coherent and meaningful set of personal constructs that inform language and action and are embedded in day-to-day practice. The authentic leader is, in a positive sense, predictable - ”We know where we stand with her.” – their views and values are clear, public and applied consistently.


Effective people (and leaders) are fluent and confident in articulating what they believe and in engaging with others to help them understand. They are equally comfortable in engaging with the emotional and intellectual and have the skills to communicate and to influence. Central to this is the notion of dialogue, the ability to hold meaningful conversations with self and others.


In the final analysis leadership is about action, the ability to translate principle into practice. The pivotal criterion for the authentic leader is that the extent to which they work on the basis of ‘Do as I do.’ rather than ‘Do as I say’.  Equally the intrapersonal informs and enhances their language and ensures that their personal values are informing their personal and professional action.


Personal authenticity is morally, professionally and personally fundamental to leadership effectiveness. It is also fundamental to personal sustainability; certainly research into personal well-being would seem to demonstrate a very high level of congruence between well-being and a range of significant variables. If well-being is defined as the optimum state for a human being – essentially where negatives are significantly outweighed by positives and it is possible to envisage the ideal circumstances for a human life. This view would obviously have to include work as a significant factor in determining human happiness and fulfilment.   Nurmi and Salmela-Aro (2006:186) demonstrate a range of significant correlations:

·         People who report that their goals are in congruence with their inherent needs report higher well-being than those who report that their goals are incongruent with their needs.

·         People who report having intrinsic goals (self-acceptance, affiliation, community feeling) report a higher level of well-being than those who report more extrinsic goals (financial success, materialism, physical attractiveness).

·         People who report a high level of commitment and involvement in their goals show a high level of well being and low distress.

·         People who think they can control the ways in which their goals proceed have higher levels of well-being than those who lack belief in personal control.

This clearly raises the issue of vocation as goal orientation or the particular motivation in a person’s life. In essence vocation can be understood as the personal, subjective, motivating force that transcends all other demands and preoccupations – vocation gives purpose or in Pink’s compelling phrase it is ‘ The oxygen of the soul”. (2009: 129) As Pink points out this sense of focus and engagement is what Csikszentmihalyi (1997:117) refers to as an “autotelic experience” from the Greek auto (self) and telos (purpose) it is ‘ something that is worth doing for its own sake . . . because it contains its goal within itself’. It may be that this final leadership proposition is the most significant and most challenging:


We can pretend that we are independent and that what we do does not affect others (and what others do does not affect us), but that is not true. We can pretend that everybody sees things in the same way, or that our differences can be resolved purely through market or political or legal competition, but this is not true. And we can pretend that we can do things the way we always have, or that we can first figure out and then execute the correct answer, but this is not true. (Kahane 2010:5)


For Kahane:


 . . . we need to acknowledge our interdependence, cooperate and feel our way forward. We need therefore to employ not only our power but also our love. . (Kahane 2010:5)





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