Authentic Leadership: What It Is and Why You Need It

This article defines authentic leadership. It also outlines the roles of one’s personal history and life experiences, the larger social context, and self-awareness in it. Questions are provided to prod the reader to examine his/her/their authentic leadership style.

By M. Carolyn Miller, MA

The Perfect Prescription for Innovation and Personal Satisfaction

In 2007, Harvard University conducted a study to understand the behaviors that could be developed to foster an authentic leadership style. The study concluded that, by its very nature, “authentic leadership” was difficult to define, much less teach. Indeed, it grew out of one’s personal history and life experiences and was, well, authentic to that individual leader.

The very nature of authentic leadership means it’s available to everyone, regardless of where your job sits in the clinic hierarchy or who you lead (even if it’s only yourself). In addition, you have plenty of good reasons to foster it. At a time when systems are breaking down and new ones are emerging, everyone, from the kennel staff to the practice owner, must innovate. And there’s nothing like an authentic leadership style to do just that.

The Impact of Life Experiences

At its core, authentic leadership means taking all of who you are to work. It means doing your job without comprising your values and personality. As the Harvard study learned, your values and personality are a direct result of your life experiences. This is why, for instance, growing up on a farm might predispose you to working with animals as your career and becoming a veterinarian.

But we don’t grow up in a vacuum. Yes, one’s values and personality are shaped by one’s history. That history in turn is shaped by the larger social context, noted researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a global leadership research and development organization.

Today, amid the social climate of diversity, gender fluidity, and changing social values, “authentic leadership” is being not so much redefined as taken apart to show the complexity of its nature.

Group hug among friends

The groups we belong to make us feel good about who we are.

The Impact of Social Context

It’s easy to be authentic at work when you already fit in; that is, if you look or dress like everyone else, noted CCL. But what if you don’t? Authentic ways of leading can get lost or be hidden. You become afraid to speak up. As a result, your idea that is the perfect solution for a clinic problem—one that the dominant group could never have imagined—also gets lost.

The groups we belong to make us feel good about who we are and raise our level of self-esteem, noted social psychologist Henri Tajifel, PhD. And when we’re confident, we speak up about our ideas.

Traditionally, the best leaders were considered extroverted. Such leaders were invariably part of the dominant (white) culture, and invariably men. They could take to the stage metaphorically and charismatically and had a high level of self-confidence. Often, they were seen as “natural leaders.” But then along came Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain proved how our leadership identities are actually shaped by culture’s social expectations. She also proved how introverts, with their own quiet styles, were good leaders too.

This is why it’s critical to separate who you are intrinsically from who the culture shaped you to be. And that’s where self-awareness comes in.

Assess Your Authentic Leadership Style

The following questions can help you untangle and clarify your own unique authentic leadership style.

  • What early life experiences and people impacted you?
  • What do you value most and where did those values come from?
  • How/have your values changed over time?
  • What motivates you, both internally and externally?
  • Do your behaviors change depending on the group you are in?
  • Do you hide parts of yourself at work? What parts?
  • If you felt free to lead authentically, what would that look like?
  • What first steps can you take to a more authentic leadership style?

(Sources, in part, for the above include “Authentic Leadership: What It Is, Why It Matters,” Center for Creative Leadership, and “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, February 2007.)

No matter what your role in the practice is, there is room for you to explore and nurture your own authentic leadership style, and to use it to the advantage of yourself and everyone around you.

M. Carolyn Miller
M. Carolyn Miller is an employee development consultant, writer, and instructional designer. Find out more at

Photo credits: Denis Novikov/iStock via Getty Images Plus



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