Coaching & Leadership Development
June 26, 2019

What really is Authentic Leadership?

What really is Authentic Leadership?


“To thine own self be true”


We often talk about being true to ourselves, but which self are we referring to? The ego or the unconditioned/true self?


The ego is what psychologists refer to as our conditioned or learned self. It is that part of us that when we were younger, helped to give us our sense of identity. As we grew older our ego helped us to navigate the world of both inter and intra-personal relationships. We took external cues from others to help determine what was acceptable and what was not.


In doing so, we often made unconscious adaptations to our behaviours. When in the company of others, these adaptations often served to help us feel safe and ultimately feel accepted.


The tragedy is however, in our later years we often stumble and fall; unaware that these adaptations that were once winning formulas for success, are now acting as blockers to our own self-understanding and are inhibiting our own authentic growth.


The path towards authenticity


From what I have experienced in the education sector our understanding of this and the path towards integrity and authentic leadership is limited.


We talk about helping school leaders to own their moral purpose, to learn from their mistakes and to walk the talk, but a big piece of the conversation is missing.  Because we are so accustomed to focusing on the developmental stages of children and young people, rarely do we consider adult stages of development.


As a result, when it comes to supporting the work of school leaders there is a tendency to ignore the role of the ego. We lose sight of the role it has played in shaping individuals’ perceptions of themselves, their relationships with others and how they embody the leadership role.


In his book “Authentic Success” the psychologist Robert Holden says:


“I believe that leadership is not a technique. It is about being authentic and courageous enough to tell the truth. I believe that leadership is not about status; it is about service. I believe that leadership is not about being better than anyone; it is about giving your personal best”


I doubt many would argue against this statement. As Robert Holden says, it goes beyond technique and straight to the very heart of who an individual is and, whether through their actions they make the world a better place.


True authentic leadership often begins with individuals learning to discern which self/voice they are listening to. In high stakes/high pressure environments, the ego nearly always speaks first and loudest!


So, it is reasonable to assume that there may be many occasions when school leaders have thought they were being true to themselves, but they were simply being true to their ego’s suggestions and commands. In a world where most school leaders still feel the pressure to carry out their roles in the fast lane, with very few, if any pit stops, ego and adrenalin-fuelled behaviour can become the norm.


If individuals were afforded regular moments in their school lives, when they could come out from behind their ego’s defences and discern the inner point from which they had made their decisions (ego or true self) then this wouldn’t be an issue. The voice of the true self (which is often far more reasoned, compassionate and reflective) would have the upper hand. Individuals would develop wisdom, self- understanding and compassion.


They’d be equipped with the tools to successfully lead themselves from within and for this inner work to give authentic expression to who they really are.  In a nutshell, we would have plenty of healthy schools and plenty of healthy school leaders; authenticity would be the true hall mark of the profession as a whole.


It is best to think about this whole process as a journey rather than a destination, with a number of sign-posts i.e. stages in our adult development, that signal to us where we are on the journey. A significant sign-post for many school leaders that I have worked with, is self-acceptance.


The value in accepting your own true worth


Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Vicktor Frankl is quoted as having said, “Success is total self-acceptance”. If, in his statement he is equating success with authenticity then I am in agreement.


As over the years, I have come to believe that authentic leadership arises from a place of deep self-acceptance; when individuals, no matter the circumstance, exhibit the courage and bravery to show the world who they really are. And this is a crucial stage of adult development and it is a crux point for leaders who are determined to walk a path of true authenticity.


It means being able to:


– Know when to press pause and slow down so that you come to know what your own true voice sounds like

– Accept praise and own your own strengths

– Let go of worn out defences and behaviours

– Have a healthy relationship with vulnerability

– Remain curious and open to the conversations that will both challenge and inspire

– Ask questions of yourself that will take you on a deeper journey towards understanding who you really are


And ultimately if you are a school leader, it means appreciating that your school’s growth is inextricably tied up with your own. It also means accepting that the inner work is a part of this process and others will follow your lead. It is important to remember that as a leader you can only take others as far as you have taken yourself.


So…perhaps it’s worth taking a moment now to stop, pause and reflect and to ask yourself a few key questions:


– How far am I prepared to go on the inner journey?

– What has helped/hindered my development so far?

– What are the implications for the rest of my career as a school leader?


Whatever your responses, remember, you are the standard-bearer for your whole school community and you owe it both to them and to yourself to fully understand what it means ‘to be true to yourself’.



Learning to lead with Authenticity


If you would like to explore deeper into this central question and discover what being authentic means in the life of a school leader, then please do join us in October 2020, when we will once again host Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for our very special “Education for the Soul” conference.


This conference will feature a new selection of expert speakers and workshop hosts, who will be sharing their insights into how school leaders can look after their own well-being, get the most out of those they lead and deliver the best outcomes for their pupils.


The conference will aim to build on the outcomes of our previous “Education for the Soul” conferences and seek to explore how school leaders and teachers can learn to lead with integrity, depth and purpose.


As part of this, we will look into how individuals can stay connected to their “why” and their deepest values. Above all, “Education for the Soul” 2020 will aim to help school leaders and teachers:


– Foster a deep sense of vocation and purpose amongst all staff

– Increase their understanding of the relationship between school development and personal development

– Keep hope, joy passion, commitment and creativity at the heart of their school and relationships with self and others


Learn More




  1. I absolutely loved reading this article. Simple and sensitively effective.

  2. An important reminder of how our motivation proceeds from our deepest authentic self, and not from the exterior self we present to the world.


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