Authentic Leadership — How to Lead While Staying True to Yourself

Download Now: How to Be a Leader
Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


As I started taking leadership roles in my career, I thought I had to copy the exceptional leaders I’m inspired by. Over time, I realized that authentic leadership contributes to the biggest positive impact on my teams. It turns out the key to being a great leader is learning to be yourself, just in a leadership position.

What is authentic leadership? How can you implement it?

HubSpot asked marketing leaders about the most important qualities they consider when deciding to promote an individual to a senior position. Of respondents, 39% said leadership, making it the top factor.

Like you, I was motivated to become a better leader, so I sought guidance. In this article, I’ll go over what authentic leadership entails, why it’s important, and how to discover which type of leadership feels most genuine to you.

Click here to download leadership lessons from HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah.

Table of Contents

Common authentic leadership characteristics include:

  • Humility.
  • Integrity.
  • Empathy.
  • Discipline.
  • Transparency.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Commitment to personal development.

These qualities help those in charge inspire their teams, which is crucial for anyone who wants to be an effective leader. In a survey of marketing leaders, 39% of respondents listed “motivating and empowering their team” as the number one thing they can do to make the biggest impact in their role.

Free Leadership Lessons Guide

Actionable leadership advice from HubSpot's Co-Founder, Dharmesh Shah.

  • Qualities of Confident People
  • Leading By Example
  • Recognizing Excellence
  • And More!
Learn more

    Download Free

    All fields are required.

    You're all set!

    Click this link to access this resource at any time.

    What is Authentic Leadership Theory?

    In Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets To Creating Lasting Value, the highly successful former CEO outlines five leadership principles he believes comprise an authentic leadership style: Purpose, values, heart, self-discipline, and relationships. He argues that authentic leaders create far more value than leaders who rely solely on financially oriented decision-making.

    While reading this book, I made the discovery that started my journey to authentic leadership: Compassion and matters of the heart aren’t weaknesses for leaders. They’re superpowers.

    Here’s a closer look at the puzzle pieces of authentic leadership, according to Bill George.

    1. Purpose

    Authentic leaders have a strong sense of purpose that drives their work. Examples of purpose in business can be innovation, product excellence, or even social change.

    Having a clear purpose makes it easier to identify priorities when I have an endless list of tasks and not enough time. In those moments, I ask myself which strategies and projects most align with my business’s long-term goals.

    2. Values

    In addition to having a clear purpose, authentic leaders honor their values by incorporating them into decision-making and actions. Doing the right thing from a moral perspective has always served me better than focusing on what I’d want for myself in particular. In short, authentic leadership is also ethical leadership.

    3. Heart

    Heart refers to the compassion that authentic leaders have for others and their well-being. It may sound like a soft skill, but it has paid off in dividends on my team. I don’t think leaders can ever go wrong by treating others with kindness and caring about the people who work for them.

    In fact, the opposite mindset can be harmful in terms of motivation, satisfaction, and productivity. In our recent survey, 30% of people listed unsupportive management as the most significant cultural barrier to high performance.

    4. Self-Discipline

    Leaders who exercise self-discipline stay engaged in their work and see projects through to the end. I find this especially important in today’s age of digital work; it’s easy to be swayed by constant distractions.

    As a leader, it’s my job to set the tone for my team by remaining focused on the priorities that align with my purpose and values.

    5. Relationships

    To truly foster authenticity, authentic leaders remain genuine and straightforward, which involves giving honest feedback.

    That might seem counterintuitive. How will you become close to your team if you point out their shortcomings? Trust me, it works in your favor in the long run since your employees can trust that you aren’t hiding your true feelings about their performance.

    Why Authentic Leadership is So Impactful

    A big reason authentic leadership is so important is that it allows business leaders to establish trust and improve team performance from the top down. When the foundation is built on trust, people are more likely to perform well individually, collaborate effectively as team members, and support one another.

    Trust isn’t simply a nice word to mention when discussing company culture. In my experience, it’s essential for creating a high-performance environment and building a business that can succeed in the long run.

    When surveyed, 79% of marketing leaders said that company culture is either very or extremely important to reaching organizational objectives. Furthermore, according to a PwC survey, 93% of business executives say their ability to build and maintain trust improves the bottom line.

    What does that actually look like? As I developed genuine good boss energy, practiced empathy, and actually listened to my team, I built a productive work culture that empowers people to achieve their goals.

    If you want to use authenticity to create a more enjoyable and productive work environment, I recommend starting with the basics of authentic leadership theory, which you’ll learn shortly. First, let’s be aware of the hurdles to leading authentically.

    The Challenge of Authentic Leadership

    Each person is unique, so it’s impossible to create a color-by-numbers guide to authentic leadership. As Meghan Keaney Anderson, HubSpot's vice president of marketing, put it, “It's funny that something so basic as being yourself starts to become harder as you gain responsibility and scope. But the truth is, being authentic as a leader has to be consciously worked at.”

    Unlike some other types of leadership styles, Anderson explains, "There are no examples of what's authentic to you (until you get there). So, you have to search for it.”

    Personally, it’s been hard to fumble around, fail at times, and figure out what works for me. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some steps you can take to train your intuition.

    How to Be an Authentic Leader

    Consciously searching for authenticity is a journey I’m still on, and I find it rewarding. Well, there are some tips I wish I knew sooner. Here’s what I found helpful in discovering what resonates with me in a leadership position.

    Get to know yourself more and more.

    Being a successful leader is overwhelming at times. That‘s why it’s crucial to understand your strengths, weaknesses, and core values. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this first step, as it‘s difficult to demonstrate authenticity when you’re shaky about who you are and what you stand for.

    Remember, it's okay to take the time to reflect and connect with your inner self. It’s not a delay; it’s part of becoming a more genuine and effective leader.

    By displaying both your strengths and weaknesses to your team, you can demonstrate that you have nothing to hide and don't play games. How does this facilitate trust? For example, when your employee makes a mistake, they’ll feel more comfortable admitting their error to you.

    “Understand yourself better” is much easier said than done. That’s why I like using the three steps from Practicing Authentic Leadership by Tara S. Wernsing and Bruce J. Avolio:

    • Ask colleagues about your strengths and weaknesses. According to our recent survey, 55% of marketing leaders use input from direct reports to evaluate manager performance. Have you capitalized on feedback lately?
    • Self-reflect about your past behavior. In particular, analyze scenarios in which you’ve felt proud of your actions or wish you’d handled something differently.
    • Regularly check in with how you feel. Imagine seeing a recent campaign’s results and noticing you’re frustrated. What would you do before debriefing your team members?

    Over time, I’ve found that self-awareness is a critical component in evolving and growing as an authentic leader. By acknowledging my weak areas, I can take steps to rectify them — or hire accordingly to ensure that my team has the skills I lack.

    Ask for input.

    It's critical that you create an environment in which employees feel safe and encouraged to share their opinions. This ties back to self-awareness. You must be self-aware enough to accept that your opinion may be biased or at least partial.

    When making major decisions, it‘s important you ask for alternative opinions and remain open to discussion. While it’s important you stick to your values, it's equally critical you seek out opposing viewpoints, which can help you see flaws in your initial course of action or enable you to strengthen your argument by understanding all points of view.

    Embrace honesty, even when it’s uncomfortable.

    If you want to be an authentic leader, your actions need to encourage transparency and honesty, even when it’s uncomfortable. I find that the best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to face uncomfortable truths.

    One of my favorite examples of championing honesty and transparency is former president and CEO of Ford Alan Mulally. He implemented a color coding system where business leaders produced charts at each meeting — green to signify success, red to signify failure. This good idea had some issues in execution, as I’ll explain.

    One year, Ford’s forecasts projected the company would lose $17 billion. Yet, Mulally saw that every chart was entirely green. He then realized that Ford's culture led to managers hiding problems and avoiding transparency because they feared for their jobs.

    When one leader, Mark Fields, handed over a chart with some red on it, Mulally began clapping. His surprising reaction signifies a concept: Honesty about failure should be rewarded because it’s an opportunity for growth.

    The following week, Mulally saw charts varying from green to yellow to red. This transparency allowed teams to get a true understanding of where the company’s problems were and what needed to be improved.

    Lead by example.

    At the end of the day, it’s not enough to call yourself an authentic leader and be on your way. Your actions have to back up your words.

    After all, if you aren’t known for tactfully admitting your shortcomings and fears, it's tough to imagine that your employees will feel comfortable coming to you with their concerns and dilemmas.

    "It's demonstrating through your actions that you practice the same values and behaviors you expect from your team,” notes Emmy Jonassen, HubSpot’s director of acquisition.

    She goes on to say, “For example, if you ask your team to come to meetings on time and be prepared, you should as well. If you impress upon your team that no task is beneath anyone if it works toward team goals, you should help out with team 'grunt work' every now and again by being the notetaker, cleaning up after a team birthday celebration, and so forth.”

    When I’m more engaged and focused, my team follows suit. This seems to be true at other organizations; 78% of marketing leaders agree that leadership teams are responsible for preventing high levels of disengagement (also known as quiet quitting). At the same time, disengagement still affects 58% of the organizations we surveyed.

    Permit yourself to be vulnerable.

    If you’re anything like me, it can feel quite scary to admit that you don’t have the answer, especially in front of the people you’re supposed to lead. That said, I’ve found that I gain more trust by being honest and vulnerable instead of trying to cover up the things I don’t know.

    For this tip, I take inspiration from Anderson, who says, “You have to create touch points in the course of meetings, presentations, and management that remind you of yourself — who you are and where you're strongest.”

    To put vulnerability into action, Anderson says: “When I give speeches, I tend to start with a personal story to set the tone for the rest of the talk because there‘s no way to tell a personal story without being myself. When I’m out of my depths on something or need time to think before a decision, I make sure to say so, ensuring my team knows I don't always have the answers.”

    You don’t need to share all your life stories to be vulnerable. Simply reminding your team that you’re human can be enough to foster camaraderie and trust.

    To ensure you‘re able to empower your team, it’s critical you remain focused on demonstrating authenticity whenever possible. To learn more about how authentic leadership works, download Lessons on Leadership by HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah.

    Setting up Success with Authentic Leadership

    Ultimately, authenticity is a leadership skill like any other; it can be developed and honed over time. In my own leadership development journey, I find that being genuine and leading by example has always served my teams and me well.

    New Call-to-action

    Lessons on leadership from HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah.

      Marketing software that helps you drive revenue, save time and resources, and measure and optimize your investments — all on one easy-to-use platform