This article was first published in the September 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Virgin’s Richard Branson, Apple’s Steve Jobs and media tycoon Oprah Winfrey are some of the most famous business leaders in recent times. What can we learn about leadership from them?

I would argue not much. Just because they have profile does not mean that we either could or should emulate them. Research is a much better teacher.

One hot concept among academics is the idea of authentic leadership. The concept of authenticity probably originated with the Greeks: it centres on being true to yourself. It implies having knowledge about your values, strengths and weaknesses - and being able to live in accordance with them.

Better results

Authentic leaders not only know their own values, beliefs and skills, but also make decisions that play to the values, beliefs and needs of those around them. That may sound rather theoretical, but researchers including a team led by Arizona State University’s Fred Walumbwa have shown that more authentic leaders all over the world - in Kenya and China, for example, as well as the US - tend to get better results. Managers who score highly for authentic leadership also tend to be rated by their line managers as more effective.

Authentic leadership has four components or skills. If you would like to become a more authentic - and therefore successful - leader, consider using these four categories, described in the rest of this article, as prompts for discussion with the people around you.

  • Self awareness. To what extent can you describe your weaknesses, as well as your strengths? Can you describe the impact you have on the people around you? Self-awareness is having an accurate understanding of your gifts as well as your gaps - in particular the effect these have on co-workers. Of course, the only way you can genuinely know the impact you have on others is by asking them. The best leaders I’ve worked with solicit opinions on a regular basis through formal techniques such as 360° feedback and through conversations with colleagues, customers, mentors and coaches. They ask over and over: ‘How am I doing? What could I do better?’

  • Transparent communication. To what degree do you convey information? How clearly can you articulate your views and explain the reasons, beliefs and values behind your decisions? Can you tell people about problems and concerns in a constructive rather than a demoralising manner? Authentic leaders try to be as honest and open as possible. That doesn’t mean sharing all your frustrations and being aggressive. Nor does it mean telling others about your worries in a way that discourages them. Authentic leaders share information - but in a way that is productive and appropriately positive.
  • Balanced decision-making. You may already seek out and analyse data before making decisions, but how often do you ask colleagues for opinions that contradict your beliefs? Can you remember the last time you listened to an opposing point of view and changed your mind? Authentic leaders realise they can’t know everything and that it’s important to gather opinions as well as data. Sometimes, leaders tell me their teams would speak up if they didn’t agree, but in my experience that’s rarely the case. The truth is that people often feel reluctant to speak up, fearing they will be seen as critical and unsupportive. Strong leaders regularly seek out dissenting points of view.

  • Moral behaviour. Authentic leaders make decisions that are principled, honest and honourable - even in the face of pressure from customers, senior colleagues, shareholders or other groups.
    Every manager in the world believes they operate by a strong moral code. But when was the last time you resisted pressure - financial or otherwise - in order to do the right thing from a moral point of view? To what extent would the people in your team say that you make decisions that are guided by a set of positive standards?

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: