Publishing Disclaimer: In all of its publications and products, NCO Journal presents professional information. However, the views expressed therein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Army University, the Department of the US Army, or any other agency of the US Government.

Authentic Leadership

By Sgt. Maj. Sean Horval

U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy

March 27, 2020

Download the PDF

U.S. Special Operations Soldiers

Leaders are never entirely authentic or inauthentic. Instead, they are more accurately described as achieving levels of authenticity (Gardner, Cogliser, Davis, & Dickens, 2011). The role of a leader is challenging, requiring a high level of energy, motivation, resolve, and persistence. According to leadership researchers Shamir and Eilam (2005), “To find the motivation to lead and the energy to persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks, leaders need to operate from strong convictions and a high level of self-concept clarity” (p. 399).

Authentic Leadership Theory

Authentic leadership (AL) theory is considered a root construct underlying all positive approaches to leadership, and it stresses the idea of leading by example (Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004). Empirical evidence has associated AL theory with openness of organizational climate (Henderson & Hoy, 1983); job satisfaction, organizational commitment, work happiness (Jensen & Luthans, 2006), satisfaction with supervisor, organizational commitment, job performance (Walumbwa et al., 2008), psychological well-being (Toor & Ofori, 2009), trust in leadership (Wong, Spence Laschinger, & Cummings, 2010), team authenticity, teamwork behavior (Hannah, Walumbwa, & Fry, 2011), perceived leader effectiveness (Moriano, Molero, & Mangin, 2011), team trust (Walumbwa, Luthans, Avey, & Oke, 2011), and behavioral integrity (Leroy, Palanski, & Simons, 2012).

Authenticity vs. Authentic Leadership

The dictionary meaning of authenticity is “not false or imitation,” “real,” “actual,” “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character” (Authenticity, n.d.). Authenticity involves being true to oneself, and not others, so it can be presumed that too much authenticity can result in self-promoting behavior that can be toxic to organizations. This contradicts the essence of AL thoery, which is to sacrifice personal intersts for group goals and interests.

Leadership is a process of social influence; therefore, to attain authentic leadership, it would be wise for leaders to hold back strong convictions that may not be in-line with organizational values such as neurotic and narcissistic tendencies, or political or religious orientations that can overshadow organizational goals like mission success. Alvesson and Einola (2019) state, “With ‘too much’ authenticity, workplace climate may be harmed, and conflicts emerge and escalate” (p. 388).

U.S. Army Paratroopers

Authentic Leadership Behavior

AL behavior should flow from the top of the organization down to the most junior subordinate. Authentic leaders view accomplishing tasks and developing subordinates as equally important. They regularly develop themselves so follower development is seen as being genuine and a regular part of the process.

Authentic leaders are guided by principles. These are values put into action, and represent an orientation toward doing what is right for the organization (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007). A value such as respect, for example, can be translated into a leadership principle such as creating a work environment where everyone is treated with dignity, opinions are valued, and talent is recognized.

Authentic leaders remain cognizant of their vulnerabilities and openly discuss them with seniors and peers, so the leader can be sure he or she is headed in the right direction, simultaneously becoming more self-aware. Authentic leaders have the moral capacity to judge complex issues seeking multiple solutions without being viewed as disingenuous or shifting with popular opinion (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). Finally, authentic leaders are less likely to feel the need to take center stage or demand anyone's attention — they are humble (May, Hodges, Chan, & Avolio, 2003). According to ADP 6-22:

A leader with the right level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others' input and feedback. Leaders are seen as humble when they are aware of their limitations and abilities and apply that understanding in their leadership. (Department of the Army, 2019, p. 2-11)

Humility is a distinguishing factor of the most successful organizations; and therefore, has recently been introduced as a new Army leadership value (Weathers, 2019).

Organizational Alignment

According to Avolio et al. (2004), “It does not matter what type of leader you are. Authentic leaders can be directive or participative, and could even be authoritarian” (p. 806). What is essential is that the leader adapts to the circumstances and people around them so they can be effective and influential. This often requires an adjustment in behavior, and for the self to be moved to the backstage (Alvesson & Einola, 2019). To drive this point, Algera and Lips-Wiersma (2012) put forth that authentic leaders “are not only capable of dealing with organizational, societal and personal challenges, but they also have the capacity to do this without a desire for status or personal rewards” (p. 123).

U.S. Army 1st. Lt. Russel Davis and Spc. Shannon Fletias with the 101st Airborne Division

Building and aligning personal values with an organization's mission is the most important responsibility of AL. Leaders that express organizational values and aspirations are more likely to be effective. Attributes (character, presence, intellect) and competencies (leads, develops, achieves) outlined in the Army Leadership Requirements Model (Department of the Army, 2019), are core values that resonate with team members throughout an organization.

Authentic Leadership Development

Since AL is considered a root construct and underlies all positive approaches to leadership, including transformational and servant leadership theories, it could be beneficial to add it to the existing leadership curriculum in both officer and noncommissioned officer education systems. Authentic leadership development is not a “learning leadership in a day program;” therefore, formal education early in one's career is needed. In addition to formal education, improving one's AL, as well as self-awareness, will require a continuous commitment to development.

Soldiers tend to imitate or model leaders they aspire to be like. Team leaders, for example, try to be like their favorite squad leader. Platoon sergeants want to be like the best first sergeant in the battalion, and so on. “Authentic leadership development is how both positive and negative moments and events can trigger deep change in an individual's self-identity, bringing into clearer focus alternative ‘possible selves’ that eventually may replace the current individual's ‘actual self’” (Avolio, et al., 2004, p. 812).

Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment

With each experiment with “possible selves,” Soldiers do it authentically. They genuinely believe that is who they are until they come to realize it is not. Then they try another “possible self.” Finding one's true self takes a lifetime of experimentation and reflection because a life story is continually changing. The way one frames their life story has a significant impact on who they think they are (Shamir & Eilam, 2005).


Leadership involves modeling the way for others. Followers transform because they believe their leader authentically cares about the development of their subordinates and the success of the organization. Leaders will retain trust so long as they are transparent, predictable, have a clear morality, stay flexible, are willing to comply and make compromises, fulfill role requirements and job expectations, and remain loyal to the group rather than having a strict personal agenda. Authentic leadership can have a fundamental and positive impact not just within an immediate organization, but also future organizations as subordinates are mentored to become authentic leaders.


Algera, P. M., & Lips-Wiersma, M. (2012). Radical authentic leadership: Co-creating the conditions under which all members of the organization can be authentic. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(1), 118–131.

Alvesson, M., & Einola, K. (2019). Warning for excessive positivity: Authentic leadership and other traps in leadership studies. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(4), 383-395.

Authenticity. (n.d.). Merriam Webster Online.

Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. O., Luthans, F., & May, D. R. (2004). Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(6), 801-823.

Department of the Army. (2019). ADP 6-22: Army leadership and the profession.

Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(6), 1120-1145.

George, B., Sims, P., Mclean, A. N., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(2), 1-8.

Hannah, S. T., Walumbwa, F. O., & Fry, L. W. (2011). Leadership in action teams: Team leader and members' authenticity, authenticity strength, and team outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 64,(3), 771-802.

Henderson, J. E., & Hoy, W. K. (1983). Leader authenticity: The development and test of an operational measure. Educational and Psychological Research, 3(2), 63-75.

Jensen, S. M., & Luthans, F. (2006). Entrepreneurs as authentic leaders: Impact on employees' attitudes. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 27(8), 646-666.

Leroy, H., Palanski, M. E., & Simons, T. (2012). Authentic leadership and behavioral integrity as drivers of follower commitment and performance. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(3), 255-264.

Luthans, F., & Avolio, B. (2003). Authentic leadership development. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 241–258). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

May, D. R., Hodges, T. D., Chan, A. Y. L., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 32(3), 247–260.

Moriano, J. A., Molero, F., & Mangin, J. -P. L. (2011). Authentic leadership: Concept and validation of the ALQ in Spain. Psicothema, 23(2), 336–341.

Shamir, B., & Eilam, G. (2005). “What's your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 395–417.

Toor, S., & Ofori, G. (2009). Authenticity and its influence on psychological well-being and contingent self-esteem of leaders in Singapore construction sector. Construction Management and Economics, 27(3), 299–313.

Walumbwa, F., Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Peterson, S., & Wernsing, T. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126.

Walumbwa, F. O., Luthans, F., Avey, J. B., & Oke, A. (2011). Authentically leading groups: The mediating role of collective psychological capital and trust. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32(1), 4–24.

Weathers, C. (2019, December 27). The Army has introduced a new leadership value. Here’s why it matters.

Wong, C. A., Spence Laschinger, H. K., & Cummings, G. G. (2010). Authentic leadership and nurses’ voice behaviour and perceptions of care quality. Journal of Nursing Management, 18889–900.


Sgt. Maj. Sean M. Horval is an instructor for the department of command leadership at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy (USASMA). Horval is a USASMA class 65 graduate, and holds an Associate of Arts degree from the University of Maryland University College, Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College, and a Master of Education in lifelong learning and adult education from Penn State University.

Back to Top