The 5 Marks of Authentic Leadership

Many people have written on what it means to be a leader. Almost everyone identifies influence as the primary characteristic. By definition, this means that leadership and position are two different things. You can have a title, and a position of power, but this does not mean that you are a leader. Even people without these things can exert influence and thus leadership.

Business man stripped to his shorts and jumping off a dock - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #11582459

Photo courtesy of ©

But leadership is more than influence. It certainly includes influence, but it is more. I believe it includes at least five characteristics. When I speak on this topic, I call these “the five marks of authentic leadership”:

  1. Authentic leaders have insight. Sometimes we refer to this as vision, but that usually has exclusive reference to the future. While leaders must have vision, they need more. They need wisdom and discernment. (Click here to tweet that.)

    They need to be able to look at complex situations, gain clarity, and determine a course of action. In the Bible, “[The] men of Issachar … understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). This is what I mean by insight.

  2. Authentic leaders demonstrate initiative. They go first. They don’t sit on the sidelines. They don’t ask others to do what they are unwilling to do themselves. Instead, they lead by example. Lt. Col. Hal Moore is a great example of this. Famously depicted by Mel Gibson in the movie, We Were Soldiers, Lt. Moore told his troops, before leaving for Vietnam,

    We are going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear, before you and before Almighty God: that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I’ll be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together, so help me God.”

  3. Authentic leaders exert influence. It’s no coincidence that influence and influenza (the flu) come from the same root word. Real leaders are contagious. (Click here to tweet that.) People “catch” what they have. People are drawn to their vision and their values. They are able to gather a following and move people to act. To change metaphors, they are like human wave pools, creating a ripple effect wherever they go.
  4. Authentic leaders have impact. At the end of the day, leaders make a difference. The world is changed because of their leadership. They are able to create real and lasting change. Unless something has shifted, they aren’t leaders. They are only entertainers. There is a big difference. The measure of leadership cannot be found in the leader; it is found in the impact the leader has on his or her followers.
  5. Authentic leaders exercise integrity. Not every leader is benevolent. Adolf Hitler was a leader, as was Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin. They had insight, initiative, influence, and impact. Yet their lives were not integrated with the highest values. Integrity—or the lack thereof—ultimately determines the quality of a person’s impact. In a sense, this is the foundation of authentic leadership.

Leaders must be deliberate and intentional if they are to be successful. These five qualities can guide us as we grow in our ability to lead.

Question: Do these attributes mark your leadership? Where can you improve?
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  • theresaipfroehlich

    Fabulous post on Authentic Leadership. There was a time when leadership was defined more like the military model – the hierarchy determines who leads. Leadership in the last few decades, at least in America, has evolved into a more egalitarian model because of the knowledge (due in part to technological advance) explosion. Peter Drucker calls people in the workplace "knowledge workers". In the end, leaders do exercise authority and influence simultaneously. To be effective and authentic, I think influence needs to be the dominant conduit.

  • @MichaelDauph

    Wow. Thanks for this. Simple and applicable.

  • David Valencia

    what about humility?…most leaders are proud and insecure!…they walk over people instead of serving them.
    Of course if they serve it is when it's ? What about sacrifice?
    Is not sacrifice the experience of being hurt because you are giving up something dear to you for the sake of someone else?

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  • Ria Hawkins, Ph.D.

    To complete my Ph.D. I researched a ton of leaders, leaders that I believe are mindful.  One capacity evident throughout all of them was authenticity.  I enjoyed this post and encourage you to check out mine and let me know what you think.

  • Soderquist Center

    Here’s an example of someone who doesn’t have all 5 of those marks. Check it out!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Really hilarious. I laughed out loud.

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  • Gary Duke

    Great insight.  I ordered your new book, subscribed to your blog.  Thank you!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Gary. I appreciate that.

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  • Keiki Hendrix

    Wonderful post. There is a huge difference between leadership and influence.

  • Katie McAleece

    Definitely so true that position/title doesn’t make someone a leader. Some of the greatest leaders I’ve known didn’t even have a fancy title behind their name.

    This is a great post! I’m glad you re-shared it with us.

  • BarbaraMcDowellWhitt

    Michael, I hope you have had a wonderful and restful vacation. I like your five “i” words for describing authentic leaders. As I see it, the first two and the last one are necessary for the third and fourth ones to happen. 

    Leadership, I think, needs to have less emphasis on the “I” of the leader and be more about the “You” of those who are being led.Years ago my mother and my English teacher (I was blessed to have the same English teacher all four years of high school) said never to start a sentence in our creative writing with “I.” These days I wonder a lot about who it was that started the “always capitalize the letter ‘i’ when writing about yourself including when it is in the middle of a sentence.” If we capitalize “I” shouldn’t we also capitalize “You,” “She,” “He,” and “They?”And writing of “I,” now days i also wonder about how the “internet” got capitalized.

  • Tguard

    Great post. Several people have hit on the topic of humility and I want to comment on it a step further. As a leader of my home, business, and now moving into a role of spiritual leadership within ministry… I see alot of leaders not being willing to humble themselves (by being honest) for, what they believe to be, the benefit of those they lead. Nothing is more important than honesty and there is nothing more honest than to admit failure (we all know, we all do it)… whether that’s failure in a decision or failure of character. I want to train myself and those around me to handle failure with the right perspective (spiritual/social/others-serving) and responsibility. If as leaders, we get too caught up in pleasing people for the sake of “being a great leader”, we miss the most important lesson we could pass on… that “failure” is part of being a leader (maybe the most important part). It’s how you deal with failure that determines the depth of your authentic leadership. If those around me learn nothing about how to fail with integrity, I have failed. Anyone can win… few can lose and still win.

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  • Terry Hadaway

    It’s ironic that in the place where leadership is most needed–the church–it is often most absent. Jesus modeled leadership for us. However, the approach of many church leaders today looks like it was taken from the pages of a failed corporation.

  • Russell

    Very insightful, I struggle with creating impactful change (at least I belive so). This was very helpful, thanks for sharing.

  • Chris Coussens

    These are pretty much how I measure leadership. I feel like insight is always a growth area. Wisdom comes from experience and often from failing or pain. What’s the value of real wisdom? As the commercial (and in this case the bible) says… Priceless.

  • John Gardner

    A very “I”nspiring article. I gained
    much from that. As a high school band director, near the end of every school
    year as seniors (much of the leadership pool in any h/s band) prepare to
    graduate, those taking their place tend to feel inadequate. I will use some of
    what you said in the future.

  • Reynaldo Camingal

    Thank you Sir Michael! Leaders must practice HONESTY all the time even in small things or big things..much more when no one is watching.

  • derekouellette

    Hey Michael, in your first point there’s this amazing feature that blew me away! In that paragraph you wrote a tweetable sentence and then had “click here to tweet that” (I did, btw). How did you set that so that when I clicked “here”, that line (not the whole paragraph, nor just a general link to the article) came up for me to tweet, along with a link to the article.

    It’s a nifty trick I’d love to learn.

  • john chong

    Great stuff!  Trudi you are a awesome leader!!  Love the quotes…   

  • john chong

    Great stuff!  Trudi you are a awesome leader!!  Love the quotes…

  • guest

    Good article, but what does it have to do with a male model in a swimsuit jumping into the water?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Real leaders take initiative—they go first and take the plunge.

      • Sarah 187

         A very good answer!

  • John M Davidson

    What a fantastic piece!   Thank you for this – for myself, this couldn’t have been delivered at a better time, as I seek to by a more authentic and godly leader in my business and personal life with my family.  Thank you for inspiring me every day! 

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  • Lisa Gray

    Sounds much like Follet with a dash oh Kousez and Posner…

  • Terry

    Whilst I totally agree this these five marks of a leader.  I’m not sure how they make the leader authentic.  Isn’t authenticity about the leader behaving in alignment with their personality, values or beliefs? 

    • Michael Hyatt

      I’m using authentic in the the sense of “real.”

  • Grace4delia

    Daily I struggle with leadership, I don’t like being a leader, but God keeps putting me in leadership positions.  I read these attributes and can honestly say that I do my best to practice these things. Thank you for this, it is a great encouragement.

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  • Quintessential Leader

    They do. I cover the same attributes at, and I discuss in-depth the component of integrity in my book, “Building Trust and Being Trustworthy,” available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions. Excellent post.