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Authenticity may seem as a trivial topic in project management since it doesn’t directly improve projects. Yet, project managers who behave according to their core values will inspire their team members to perform better with more satisfaction and improve the overall organization. This article takes its starting point in authenticity and looks at how personal introspection leads to better leadership and more truthful project management. The focus is very much on Authentic Leadership which has proved to enhance followers well-being, work engagement and job satisfaction. However, Authentic Leadership is merely a description of an authentic person in a position of authority behaving authentically.

One can not just be an authentic project manager, you must start by being an authentic person in everything you do. Being an authentic person comes first and then the benefits of authenticity will shine through all aspects of your life from project management to fatherhood. This article is not meant as a 3 step tutorial to being authentic, because you cannot become authentic by intellectual understanding only. The hope is to challenge some of the existing views of success and leadership with modern research in this lesser known academic field of authenticity and especially Authentic Leadership Theory.

We find that many of the “hot topics" in project management such as and “Emotional Intelligence” as well as different “leadership styles” from an authenticity point of view, are just consequences of authentic behavior and we discuss whether charisma is an authentic or inauthentic trait. Although development of authenticity is not straight forward, research has found mindfulness to be very effective.


What is authenticity?

Many philosophers and sociologists have attempted to define authenticity since it was first brought up in ancient Greece. The Greeks wrote: “to thine own self be true” [1] , which is a quite precise definition of authenticity - to be true to your own self. We will not go into all the facets and philosophical views of authenticity - which wouldn’t bring us closer to our authentic self - and go with the two main aspects which defines authenticity that the literature generally agrees on:

  • Knowing one’s true self; owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs.
  • Acting in accord with one’s true self; expressing oneself in ways that are consistent with one’s understanding of self.

Authentic individuals can be said to be “in tune” with their basic nature and clearly and accurately see themselves and their lives. They are self-aware and unencumbered by others’ expectations and opinions for them, and therefore they can make more sound personal choices based on their own true values [2]. Authentic individuals will naturally have high self-esteem, what is referred to as “optimal self-esteem”. Optimal self-esteem involves favorable feelings of self-worth that arise naturally from successfully dealing with life challenges; the operation of one’s core, true, authentic self as a source of input to behavioral choices; and relationships in which one is valued for who one is and not for what one achieves [3].

“Measure success based on your inner scorecard. If you base success and/or your actions on an outer scorecard, that is, what others think, your life will be hollow” (Warren Buffett, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, September 30, 2005).

Warren Buffetts point may be the key point of authenticity in regards to one’s professional career. The achievements or success will not in itself have any value for an authentic person, because the authentic person solely follows his/her core beliefs. “Success” as Warren Buffett points out should instead be measured in the extent one follows one’s core values in life. Failures will also not be seen as a personal failure, rather it can be used as a source of information to guide their future behavior [3].

The measurement of how authentic a person is, is typically done through a questionnaire called, Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ).

Four components of authenticity

The most accepted definition of authenticity is the four components of authenticity proposed by Walumbwa et al. (2008) [4]. The components have a certain “direction”, the first component must be learnt before the next component can be authentic and so forth. The descriptions of the four components below is based on the work of Kernis and Goldman (2005) [5] and Walumbwa et al. (2008) [4].


The awareness of self refers to possessing, and being motivated to increase, one’s knowledge and trust in one’s motives, feelings, desires. It includes, for example, understanding one’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, goals and aspirations, dispositional characteristics, and emotional states.

Balanced Processing

This component refers to being objective about all what is observed; one’s positive and negative aspects, emotions, experiences and information. Balanced processing involves not denying, distorting or exaggerating information to fit your personal needs. It can be understood by looking at how people with low or fragile high self-esteem select and interpret information. Such persons find it hard to acknowledge personal shortcomings, such as certain skills or personality traits that they don’t like. They will typically develop strong ego defense mechanisms to distort information about their shortcomings. Individuals with balanced processing will not have strong self-serving biases to gain personal success, and will not have strong defense mechanisms.


Authentic behaviour means “acting in accord with one’s values, preferences, and needs as opposed to acting merely to please others or to attain rewards or avoid punishments through acting falsely... Authenticity is not reflected in a compulsion to be one’s true self, but rather in the free and natural expression of core feelings, motives and inclinations.” [3]. This can be seen as the behavioural output of Self-Awareness and Balanced Processing.

Of course, there will be instances where it will not be appropriate to act on behalf of your core needs and values, because it may not fit the immediate environment. Therefore one must act against the true self, which will lead to a temporally internal conflict. However, unbiased processing and awareness can still be present in such an instance, which would allow one to reflect and learn from the situation. In contrast, if awareness and unbiased processing was not present at that instance, then may not be recognized as an act against one’s values and that would lead to blind obedience.

Relational transparency

A person with high relation orientation will strive for truthfulness and openness in his/her close relationships. It’s about self-disclosure, wanting others to see the “real” you, and the development of mutual intimacy and trust. At the core, it’s about being genuine rather than fake in one’s relationships.

Authentic Leadership in Project Management

As PMBOK points out [6], project managers both need managing skills and leadership skills. Leadership is more focused on the relations with team members or stakeholders, to inspire and guide them. In short, management is about doing things right and leadership is about doing the right things. PMBOK points to different leadership styles like eg. Transformational and Charismatic, which “project managers can adopt (PMBOK, p.65). However, as PRINCE 2 says a leadership style may work in one situation but be inappropriate in another, which is one of the reasons they will not cover leadership in project management [7]. The same scepticism for the “leadership styles” is found in Authentic Leadership. That is why Authentic Leadership should not be seen as a leadership style, but rather as a “root concept” that forms the basis of observed leadership styles such as above mentioned. Authentic Leadership has gained much scholarly attention in the last decade, perhaps because of the crisis of confidence in today's corporate and government leaders [8]. We will go through what it is and how it differs from traditional leadership styles.

‘if you’re a project manager, provide for quality and truth, and success will come on the back of that. If you just go for success on its own, it won’t work. What I would like project managers to be able to face the truth, stare it in the eye and then operate by it.’ - Camila Batmanghelidjh [9]

Authentic Leadership Theory

Authentic Leadership has had many definitions and discussions about authenticity and leadership (for an overview see Iszatt-White & Kempster, 2018 [10]). Authentic Leadership draws insights from positive psychology and full-range leadership (FRL)/transformational leadership theory. Authentic leaders are, as the name suggests, authentic individuals, which means that they have high levels of the four components of authenticity. Authentic leaders are characterized as [11]:

  • they accept their strengths and weaknesses and are highly aware of themselves (1. self-awareness)
  • they openly show their emotions and their true self to their followers (2. relational transparency)
  • they take others’ perspectives and views into account (3. balanced processing);
  • they consistently behave according to their own moral standards and values, i.e., match words with actions (4. internalized moral perspective)

Authentic leaders are in addition self-confident, optimistic, reliable, and trustworthy. They lead by example and help create a healthy and ethical work climate [12] [13].

Authentic followers/team members

Authentic leadership goes beyond the authenticity of the leader as a person to the relationship and development of the team he/she is leading. The relationships are called “authentic followership” and are characterized by [2] [14]:

  • Transparency, openness, trust
  • Guidance towards worthy objectives
  • Emphasis on follower development

Authentic leaders “lead by example” with complete transparency between words and actions. The open and trustworthy relationship between leader and followers is believed to develop the values and beliefs of the followers over time, leading to “authentic followers”. By increasing their authenticity they will in turn be more transparent with the leader which will benefit the organization [2].

Empirical research has found that authentic leadership has a positive effect on followers well-being, increased work engagement, commitment, job satisfaction and behaviors like task performance, creativity [12] [15].

In project management context followers or most likely team members, but still in this case authentic leadership behaviors will foster more authentic team members [16]. As projects often happen in an organizational context the improvement of the organization can have lasting effects on other projects [12].


Figure based on the work of Gardner et al. (2005) [14]

Authentic vs Charismatic

Relation to Transformative leadership Theory

Authentic Leadership has been accused of being redundant in leadership theory, because the traits are very similar to Transformational and ethical leadership [12]. We will look at the differences of Authentic Leadership to Transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is also considered as charismatic leadership as it has considerable emotional appeal and possesses the ability to inspire (Ergeneli et al., 2007). Transformational leadership behaviors are associated with four categories:

  • Idealized influence: when a leader performs as a role model and shares common

visions, encourages and provides a strong sense of purpose.

  • Inspirational motivation: a leader expresses the importance of desired objectives of the organization and motivates.
  • Intellectual stimulation: when a leader challenges the normal ideas of followers.
  • Individualized consideration: when a leader spends more time teaching and coaching for better performance.

A transformational leader may have a strong vision they communicate influentially, but that vision and charisma may not always come from an authentic place as they could be imposing their own needs or pleasures [17]. This seems to correlate with Kernis’s description of fragile high self-esteem [3] as he also mentions narcissists as having a type of fragile high self-esteem that may come from deep insecurities that they are not themselves aware of. This is where authenticity becomes relevant because an authentic leader will not be driven by an inflated ego but by his core values and high morality. Another distinction is that authentic leaders may or may not be charismatic but they will always foster positive development of those around them.


Figure based on the work of Walumbwa & Avolio (2008) [4]

The (in)authenticity of Emotional Intelligence

Studies have found that authentic individuals also possess high levels of Emotional Intelligence. Gardner et al. (2005)[18], however, questions whether Emotional Intelligence always is authentic. It was shown that Emotional Intelligence was a significant predictor of leadership abilities [19]. Interestingly, emotionally intelligent leaders were seen as charismatic leaders by their followers, regardless of their actual emotional state. Apparently, emotionally intelligent leaders are especially skilled at regulating their emotions to generate perceptions of charisma.

In that regard the question of authenticity becomes relevant in the case of emotional intelligence, because it questions whether the charisma of an emotional intelligent leader is genuine or if it is acting. If a leader engages in, what is called, surface acting that is, manipulating others by deliberately changing the emotions displayed, then followers will see it as fake. Deep acting, however, is the effort to change inner feelings to deceive themselves. This type of acting will be perceived as authentic by others, but interestingly the deep acting individual will have a higher felt authenticity than surface acting individuals [18]. Nonetheless, deep acting still violates inner feelings and therefore compromises authenticity, despite that the leader may not recognize this to be the case. It was shown in empirical studies that surface and deep acting were more emotionally exhausting than being genuine [20].

How to enhance authenticity

Atuhtenticity can only be enhanced if one somehow acknowlegdes his/her core values and beliefs. In context of becoming an authentic leader or project manager, then very little help is found in traditional leadership training, which merely focuses on a specific set of skills (e.g., goal setting or intellectual stimulation). Authentic leadership cannot be directly taught with methods or ways to behave because imitating those would be inauthentic. To enhance authenticity, it has to be a holistic approach that accounts for the whole person: individual character, values, and preferences [11].

Trigger events

An experience of either positive or negative quality can lead to the development of one’s authentic being. These are called trigger events and can take the form of sudden experiences such as a person close to you passing away, a promotion, reading a book that challenges your core beliefs, forming a relationship, or having an anxiety attack. Such events will “cut through” the perception of self and force one to look critically upon certain aspects of one’s core beliefs and values. This mechanism will naturally allow for personal growth and will increase authenticity [14].

This approach of developing authenticity through trigger events has been conceptualized as a potential training “program” for leaders and managers to push them out of their comfort zone to change their behaviors. It consists of two phases, an exploration phase where participants recognize their ways of acting inauthentically and trying out new ways of behaving. The second phase is an integration phase where participants recognize the benefit of change through the successful behaviors in their life. This approach is still on a conceptual basis and it would require many resources to actually make such a program [21].


Mindfulness seems to be the best way of increasing one’s authenticity. Mindfulness is simply the practise of being self-aware, open and non-judgemental. Enhancing self-awareness with mindfulness one can more easily discover what is true and false within oneselves [11]. Mindfulness training has shown to increase authenticity and well-being. The study found that mindfulness leads to value-based authentic actions, and that the authentic actions themselves leads to well-being [22]. Mindfulness practices were also shown to enhance authentic leadership in a very comprehensive study of over 1000 leaders. This study showed that leaders with high levels of trait mindfulness were more likely to show authentic leadership behaviors, as perceived by both themselves and their followers. They also found that low-dose mindfulness interventions enhanced leaders authentic behaviors (perceived by themselves and followers). In the study they had leaders do 30 days of app-based meditation, which directly impacted their behavior [11].


Perhaps the reason why authenticity hasn’t had the greatest impact so far is that it is not a quick fix method that can be implemented. It is not a leadership style that can be learnt, and it might (properly) be a difficult process to accept that certain beliefs are false for instance about one's job or partner. It has a disruptive power that is both its strength and weakness.

Authentic Leadership can be seen as a very idealized leadership theory, and it is easy to blame other leadership styles for being inauthentic. However, for project or organizational success it might be beneficial to display emotions that are not heartfelt. Gardner [18] comes with an example that if a leader announces employee layoffs it would be expected to express empathy and concern for the affected employees, and would most likely be met with anger and resentment from employees if the leader failed to display such emotions. If such emotions are not heartfelt, however, expressing them would be inauthentic. If the employee detects a lack of sincerity the leader may be viewed as disingenuous, thereby undermining his or her credibility with followers. This is the sort of challenge that authentic leaders face in a leadership role, where one might violate one’s true feelings. This example suggests that being completely authentic could have a negative effect on followers and organizations. Here, emotional intelligence might be more appropriate to apply instead.

Authentic Leadership has been questioned for having fundamental flaws in its "shaky philosophical and theoretical foundations, tautological reasoning, weak empirical studies, nonsensical measurement tools, unsupported knowledge claims, and a generally simplistic and out of date view of corporate life." [23]

The question also remains if Authentic Leadership applies for project management. A study [16] didn’t find a significant correlation between authenticity of project managers and project success. This might be because project managers don’t have as much influence as positional leaders, or because project success is influenced very little by the leadership qualities of project managers. If project success is the only parameter you are interested in, then improving one's authenticity may be a lot of work for a small change. However, further studies should investigate whether authentic project managers positively influence team members in psychological areas such as well-being, felt authenticity, and job satisfaction. These enhanced factors may help the organization in future projects.

The practise of mindfulness is a great entry to discovering your authentic self. However, critics have accused mindfulness of decontextualising mindfulness from its Buddhist roots, which cuts out the ethics and morals. Instead, it is solely used for practical reasons to reduce stress but without any introspection [24]. Nonetheless, the research shows great results from mindfulness without taking the Buddist tradition into account.

Annotated biblography

Project Management Institute, Inc. (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI) Chapter 3 - The Role of The Project Manager. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has defined the standards of project management. This chapter looks at the project managers role and compares it to leadership. It concludes that leadership skills are a big part of project management.

Nübold, A., Van Quaquebeke, N. and Hülsheger, U., 2019. Be(com)ing Real: a Multi-source and an Intervention Study on Mindfulness and Authentic Leadership, Journal of Business and Psychology, 35(4), pp.469-488 This paper goes through the literature and definitions of Authentic Leadership as well as discusses mindfulness as means of enhancing authenticity. The study is of over 1000 leaders which have been meditating for 30 days, and the paper concludes that mindfulness enhances authenticity.

Kernis, M., 2003. TARGET ARTICLE: Toward a Conceptualization of Optimal Self-Esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), pp.1-26. Very interesting psycological take on authenticity and self-esteem. Kernis proposes an “optimal self-esteem” and compares this to low self-esteem and fragile high self-esteem. It is one of the key papers that started the Authentic Leadership movement, which often cites this article.

Levy, L., 2020. The Relationship Between Authentic Leadership in Project Managers and Project Success. Walden University

One of the few sources that deals with Authentic Leadership in project management context. It argues for why project managers also can be seen as non-positional leaders and that the benefits of authenticity may extend to the organization. He studies the relation between project success and authentic project managers, but finds no correlation.

Gardner, W., Fischer, D. and Hunt, J., 2009. Emotional labor and leadership: A threat to authenticity?. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(3), pp.466-482. This paper discusses Emotional Intelligence in leaders and the benefits of these skills, but also looks critically on whether Emotional Intelligence can be used to manipulate others by “deep acting”. Authentic leaders score high on Emotional Intelligence so where lies the difference between manipulation and authentic expression.

Gardner, W., Avolio, B., Luthans, F., May, D. and Walumbwa, F., 2005. “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), pp.343-372

This paper goes in depth of what Authentic Leadership means and how it affects followers. It starts from the definitions of authenticity and then goes on and explains each concept at length.


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