Leaders who relate to their teams and inspire effective action are critically important to business success. According to a study in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, employees' perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of job satisfaction and can have a positive impact on work-related attitudes and happiness.

In addition, research outlined in the Harvard Business Review shows that a majority of employees believe authenticity in the workplace leads to several benefits, including:

  • Better relationships with colleagues
  • Higher levels of trust
  • Greater productivity
  • A more positive working environment

For professionals seeking to advance their careers and make a lasting impact on their firms, investing the time and effort into becoming an authentic leader can be immensely valuable.

But what characterizes authentic leadership, and why is it a worthy pursuit? Here are five traits of authentic leaders offered by Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who teaches a free, online leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Characteristics of Authentic Leaders

1. They’re Committed to Bettering Themselves


To become more effective at motivating and guiding others, authentic leaders need to first focus on bettering themselves.

“Authentic leaders begin with the will and commitment within to work on themselves,” Koehn says. “They are not trying to be perfect or to somehow spring from the rib of Zeus into an iconic individual, but rather, they say, ‘Day by day and week by week, I’m going to work on myself.’ This commitment—made with oneself—is the most important starting characteristic.”

Investing in yourself through such avenues as taking an online course can be a way to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to help your team thrive. Beyond bolstering your resume, participating in leadership training can enable you to build a network you can lean on as you continue to grow.

Related: 3 Benefits of Leadership Training For Professionals

2. They Cultivate Self-Awareness


A keen sense of self-awareness is one of the most important traits a leader can possess. Moreover, research shows companies that employ professionals who exhibit high levels of self-awareness tend to perform better financially.

According to Koehn, cultivating this foundational component of emotional intelligence involves asking yourself questions, such as:

  • What am I experiencing?
  • What are my strengths?
  • How am I showing up in the world?

Through looking inward and engaging in self-assessment, you can not only gain a deeper understanding of your own emotions and beliefs, but improve your perception of those held by others.

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3. They’re Disciplined


Being an authentic leader requires more than just building self-awareness—you need to put it into practice, too. And that requires discipline.

Make it a point to check in with yourself as you complete daily tasks, such as delivering feedback and communicating with your colleagues, to ensure you’re bringing self-awareness to your role.

With a stronger sense of your motivations and limitations, you can identify your personal leadership style and chart a professional development plan that capitalizes on your strengths and rectifies your weaknesses.

4. They’re Mission-Driven


A deep and abiding commitment to a mission is integral to both authentic leadership and business success. According to a recent survey by EY and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 89 percent of executives said a sense of collective purpose drives employee engagement, and 84 percent said it leads to greater success in transformational efforts.

As you progress through the different stages of your leadership trajectory, consider what issues and challenges motivate you to take action and empower others to do the same. Koehn says that while identifying your mission can take time, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

“Some leaders, like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, discover their mission early on,” Koehn says. “Others, like environmental crusader Rachel Carson or newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, stumble into it. Recognizing a mighty purpose and embracing this is critically important.”

5. They Inspire Faith


Gaining the trust of your colleagues and influencing them to believe in and mobilize around a mission is a key tenet of effective leadership.

“The last, but by no means least, characteristic of authentic leadership is a willingness to take a leap of faith when things are difficult,” Koehn says. “To help your followers believe the mission is worthy of pushing forward, even in the face of unexpected hurdles, and that the vast future ahead of them, as Lincoln said, is worth fighting for, being inspired by, and identifying with.”

Whether communicating organizational change or assessing the potential challenges of scaling your venture, make it a point to be transparent with your employees and tap into the motivational drivers that enable them to develop and deliver.

Access Your Free Leadership Lesson | HBS Online

The Importance of Authentic Leadership

As more organizations commit to purpose and make authenticity paramount to their business strategy, enhancing your leadership capabilities can be a boon to your career.

“It’s what we’re thirsty for now,” Koehn says. “We’re looking for leaders who can help us make a leap of faith and be integral to creating a better world, and to believe this is worthy of doing and possible.”

No matter where you are professionally, taking the time to commit to bettering yourself, heightening your emotional intelligence, putting your leadership skills into practice, and embracing a mission can lead to substantial returns—for yourself, your team, and your organization.

Do you want to improve your leadership capabilities? Download our e-book on how to become a more effective leader or take our free, 35-minute leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, and discover how you can develop the skills to lead with courage and conviction.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.