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A systemic perspective on authentic leadership
​​Authentic leadership lies at the convergence of positive psychology, transformational leadership and ethical leadership. Research shows that a positive mood, associated with authentic leadership, has positive results in the workplace.
Authentic leadership is essentially about how the leader behaves to create a positive working environment. The authentic leadership process positively influences the self-awareness of the leader and team members, and this causes positive self-regulated behaviours from all – stimulating positive personal growth and self-development for everyone.
Authentic leadership processes are strongly linked to emotional (hedonic) well-being. Both emotional and happiness-causing (eudaemonic) well-being have a positive correlation with the concept of ‘flow’ – the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in doing a task.

Authentic leadership behaviours
  • Self-awareness: This is involves insight into your own personal characteristics, motives, feelings, values and convictions. Self-aware people are generally more confident about their ability to accomplish things, tend to have fewer mood swings, and therefore feel in control of their lives.
  • Unbiased processing: This is about being open to personal feedback, interpreting it in an unbiased way, without rationalising, distorting or minimising it. People who are practised in unbiased processing choose challenging developmental assignments where they run the risk of failing, but will learn a lot.
  • Authentic behaviour/action: This involves acting according to your values, preferences and needs, as opposed to trying to please others or to attain rewards or avoid punishments, through wearing a social mask. In general, leaders are more likely to experience flow at work, to be intrinsically motivated when leading, if they live their deep-seated values.
  • Relational authenticity: This involves a growing openness and truthfulness in your relationship with followers and associates. A key outcome of this is high levels of trust, leading to high levels of cooperation. It also increases transparency – a powerful driver of trust.These leadership behaviours cause well-being in the leader, but this is only half the story. The other half is the well-being it causes in followers. Effects of authentic leadership on follower.

  • Personal and organisational identification: Social identity theory  teaches that people’s self-concept is powerfully affected by membership of social groups. When they really identify with a group, they tend to see themselves as ‘more like them’. Followers will not only internalise the authentic behaviours of the leader, but they will also make the organisational goals supported by the leader their own.
  • Emotional contagion: The leader’s positive emotions seem to be especially contagious and can transform communities into more cohesive, moral and harmonious social organisations –  this even has long-term physical and psychological health benefits.
  • Positive behaviour model: People model themselves on the behaviour of leaders. Anyone with working experience will have seen the modelling of negative organisational behaviour – rumour-mongering, backstabbing, and destructive organisational politics. A more positive mood has a bottom-line impact, as positive people are more productive, more creative and more resistant to bad news.
  • Supportive self-determination: We know about the negative impact on motivation of the following practices: manipulating rewards; close supervision; anticipating performance appraisal; deadlines; and competition. Similarly, we know how to engage people: increase choice; develop competence through personal control over performance and rewards; and give feedback that relies on non-controlling, informational (rather than competitive) information. Leaders who support followers’ self-determination have a positive effect on their intrinsic motivation.
  • Positive social exchanges: Positive social exchange (as opposed to economic exchange) creates a climate where followers will respond in a similar way.  

So far we have looked at the effect of the authentic leader on followers, but this is not the end of the process, because followers also have a reinforcing (positive or negative) effect on leaders. 

Followers’ well-being reinforces the leader’s well-being, encouraging more authentic leadership behaviour; which in turn causes more positive influence processes, which increase the followers’ well-being; which in turn reinforces the leader’s well-being, and so on – authenticity increases authenticity; well-being increases well-being.

These positive reinforcing loops explain how a positive or authentic mood develops – a pervasive state of thinking, feeling and being. This is what sport coaches call ‘team spirit’, and it often makes or breaks a team’s performance.

Professor Marius Ungerer
 is an associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. His main areas of specialisation are strategy, strategic leadership and strategic change.

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