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Being an authentic leader doesn’t have to burn you out. Here’s how to make it work

While some managers may need to take a beat to revisit who they are and why they value what they do, self-awareness and emotional management enables us to intentionally direct our actions.

Being an authentic leader doesn’t have to burn you out. Here’s how to make it work
[Source photo: Liza Summer/Pexels]

As we’re settling into a new year, many of us are looking at the priorities we’ve set forth. We set personal goals to be more mindful or more healthy, and professionally we’re strategizing to hit company targets.

But what about the space between the two? What about the zone between what we will accomplish and how we will accomplish it? How do we take those goals and turn them into action plans in a relevant and meaningful way?

Some people’s modus operandi is fake it until you make it, some choose to emulate what executives say and do, and others apply what they’ve seen or read to be best practices. As professors in the leadership discipline, we advocate for a different route: leading authentically.


Leaders and managers during the pandemic found new ways to perform while in uncharted territory. As we reconsider our modes of operation, reset business practices, and look to the future, those in the helm now are basically asking, “now what?” They’d plugged the holes in the veritable dams at every opportunity and are ready to move on, but they’re trepidatious in their approach. They are asking:

  • Are employees looking for stalwart leaders who are not afraid to take risks and will hold workers accountable?
  • Are teams looking for friends who will listen to them compassionately when issues arise?
  • What is the right approach to attract and retain a talented workforce excited about accomplishing organizational objectives?

While the first answer is, of course, “it depends,” the follow-up may not be what you think. Yes, it depends on who the coworkers are and what the organizational culture/climate are like. Yes, it depends on the work that needs to get done and the resources available. However, we posit that the biggest factor in deciding how to lead is not external, but rather internal: Who are you and what is your authentic leadership style?

To back up, the term “authentic leadership” does not have a clear definition. While one can trace the core concept “know thyself” back to ancient Greek philosophy, applying this concept to how one interacts when leading others is different.

When discussing authentic leadership, scholars seem to reiterate a few core themes: Authentic leaders have a high self-awareness, a strong ability to balance thoughts and opportunities they are processing against their own moral values, and a relational transparency whereby people with whom they interact perceive them to be genuine. Finally, consensus of opinion holds that when authentic leaders lead, they do so while honoring their own core beliefs, values, and strengths. In other words, they do what comes naturally to them.


While it is a given that appropriate manager behavior is essential to a positive, productive workplace (as the popularity of “bad boss” and “awful boss” on social media and the news so vividly demonstrate), leaders do need to be able to communicate their feelings. Authentic leaders cannot be relationally transparent if they are covering up their emotions or they will create a dissonance in reality and perception for themselves and others. However, there are ways and means to go about communicating one’s feelings.

Two core components of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence model are self-awareness (being aware of your drivers and state of being), and self-management (what you do about this awareness). Emotional responses trigger physiological responses that may be easy to identify. It’s what someone knows to do about it (and then has the ability to do) that signifies if they are emotionally intelligent.

When it comes time to move past the self-awareness aspect and manage one’s emotions, leaders must use emotional labor. Like the work it takes to lift a heavy object, emotional labor refers to the effort involved in purposely regulating our emotions. Being mindful and commanding yourself to not give in to frustration, anguish, or anger, you are employing emotional labor when you attempt to satisfy expectations on how you are acting at work.

Anyone with a leadership role during the pandemic understands what this entails, and is likely exhausted as a result. While many people found it was okay to let their guards down and act more human with one another, we needed our leaders to stay strong. We looked to them for explicit and implicit signals that things would ultimately be alright.

This took a tremendous amount of emotional labor, and still does. Some leaders simply burned out; many who remain have found a way to cope and be resilient in ways that are authentic to them.


Historically, there have been two main modalities for how we behave:

Agentic: An achievement orientation that is forceful, decisive, independent, and sometimes aggressive.

Communal: Focuses on social service and is considered helpful, kind, and sympathetic.

For years, research not only affiliated agentic orientations with “male” profiles (versus typecasting the nurturing communal as “feminine”), it also established that when genders crossed orientations, there were biased results.

Interestingly, while there is no one proven-more-effective mode of operation, workers have long associated agentic styles with capable leadership. Consequently, women espoused practices ranging from the big shoulder pads of the 1980s to the booming voice and reputed directness espoused by Elizabeth Holmes to be more authoritative. But this did not work. In fact, research has shown that, in times of crisis, it is the communal style that is most effective. Furthermore, the emotional labor it takes to change one’s orientation is simply not authentic.


Authentic leaders are not pretending it is all okay, nor are they manifesting their anger or frustrations inappropriately. They are doing what they need to do, turning the page, and doing what’s next.

Some leaders burned out during the pandemic; others have found a way to balance what is needed of them in their roles with what they need to get for themselves. This may entail conscious mindful practice, or may be from enacting authentic leadership even without knowing it. So, how do we, as leaders, engage in authentic leadership?


What do we, as leaders, value most? As Bevy Smith suggested, you cannot know who you are if you’ve suppressed yourself or spent your time trying to emulate someone else. However, if you know what you stand for, this will drive your actions. So, we must remember to prioritize ourselves and determine what we, authentically, value in the workplace. Once we recognize the importance of things such as honesty, communal engagement, action, innovation, (etc.), we should clearly communicate them in our thoughts and actions as leaders.


Authentic leaders have the ability to connect with people, building foundations for both collaborative and individual achievement. They are engaged with others, as Kouzes and Posner described, encouraging the heart to connect and understand what drives the teams they lead. Creating communities in our organizations is not just about policy and formal structures, but also about how we connect with those around us as leaders. General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “Leadership is all about people.” Building relationships and understanding the people we lead is an essential part of authentic leadership.


If you, as a leader, aren’t clear about your or your organization’s purpose and goals, how can your team achieve them? Authentic leadership requires clarity and specifics to achieve success. This doesn’t mean you need to redefine your mission statement—rather, you should identify what the goals and objectives of your organization and team are, in a clear and achievable way.

Authentic leaders identify objectives and set standards. The standards may be high, but they can be grasped by the team, focusing on both long and short-term ways for the organization to succeed. This can vary from something as specific as a list of project milestones to a strategic plan that positions the organization for the future. Either way, authentic leaders ensure that it is clearly defined for the organization.


Authentic leaders are in it for the organization, not for themselves. Describing the discipline it takes to be a leader, Colin Powell suggested the term “selfless service.” This means prioritizing those we lead and their needs, then the organization, then our own demands. Leaders who do the opposite are not well received. As leaders, it’s our obligation to ensure that our actions are best for the team and those we lead, inculcating trust for our decisions and direction of the organization. If this is not an authentic value, perhaps leading is not the right role for you.

Taking Polonius’ advice—“to thine own self be true”— authentic leadership encourages us to be ourselves to accomplish our goals when working with others. While some managers may need to take a beat to revisit who they are and why they value what they do, self-awareness and emotional management enables us to intentionally direct our actions. Managers who will find success will understand the potential impacts of their actions, then determine how they want to lead accordingly.

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Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant. More

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