Authentic Leadership: Is It Simply Emotional Intelligence in Disguise?

Bill George introduced many of us to the concept of ‘Authentic Leadership’ (2003), proposing a new kind of leader whose character was the ingredient that mattered the most. A few years before this, Dan Goleman was topping the best sellers list with his ‘mixed model’ of Emotional Intelligence (1996). Studies of both concepts have progressed over the years, yet there are striking similarities. It begs the question, is authentic leadership simply emotional intelligence in disguise?

At this juncture, it’s helpful to point out that we are fans of both concepts; they add value to anyone wishing to develop their leadership approach.


The Pillars of Emotional Intelligence: Goleman’s Framework

Goleman developed a framework of four key domains (initially five) that make up emotional intelligence, plus a range of skills that can be developed and improved. Goleman’s four components are:

  • Self-awareness
    • Know how you feel, be aware of your emotions and the impact of these on your actions and their impact on others
  • Self-regulation/Self-Management
    • Managing your emotions and staying in control (knowing and being accountable to your emotions and values). This encompasses handling your emotions in distressing situations so they don’t become crippling; you stay attuned to them so you can learn what you need to from them. Similarly, it also includes marshalling positive emotions, getting yourself involved and enthused about what you are doing by aligning your emotions with your actions.
  • Social Awareness/Empathy
    • Sensing the emotions of others, taking an interest in others and putting themselves in others’ shoes – feel others’ emotions. (responding to body language, feelings/developing others/political awareness)
  • Relationship Management
    • Building bonds and positively influencing others, communicating clearly and confidently, and collaborating with others. It also includes the ability to negotiate and resolve conflict.


Unpacking Authentic Leadership: The Multidimensional Construct

It’s a little harder to find a definitive construct for authentic leadership. Walumbwa et al. (2008) provide perhaps the most thorough option for our purposes. They proposed a multidimensional construct, drawing upon the work of Kernis (2003), Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, et al. (2005) and Ryan & Deci (2003), which covers the following:

  • Self-awareness
    • Showing an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses and the multifaceted nature of the self, which includes gaining insight into the self through exposure to others and being cognizant of one’s impact on other people (Kernis, 2003)
  • Relational transparency
    • refers to presenting one’s authentic self to others (as opposed to a fake or distorted self)
  • Internalised moral perspective
    • Refers to an internalised and integrated form of self-regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2003), resulting in decision-making and behaviours consistent with your internal moral standards and values.
  • Balanced processing
    • Leaders who show that they objectively analyse all relevant data in a non-biased way before making decisions.


So, let’s compare the two…

As you would expect, the self-awareness constructs are closely related. But truth be told, that goes for most contemporary leadership models/concepts – you would struggle to find any leadership approach that doesn’t discuss the importance of the individual’s levels of self-awareness. And, if you do, pay it little credence.

Relational transparency refers to the candid expression of thoughts and feelings, including owning one’s mistakes. Consequently, we can draw similarities between this construct and that of Self-regulation/Self-management. Equally, the effective application of Relational transparency helps us build connections/bonds with others, so we can begin to plot a connection to Relationship Management.

An internalised moral perspective can also be closely correlated with the EI construct of Self-regulation/Self-management and Social Awareness/Empathy. Empathy’s centrality to morality is heavily debated. Yet, the importance of the human capacity to feel with and for others is hard to deny (Maibom 2014). By enabling people to understand how their behaviour affects others— empathy can play a fundamental role in promoting morality’s goal of maximising everyone’s well-being (Ugazio et al., 2014).

Finally, Balanced processing acts as a catch-all across each EI domain. Effective leaders in this construct solicit views that challenge their deeply held positions (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, et al., 2005), including feelings and beliefs, and make decisions that are good for the group/team/organisation.

As we can see, a close conceptual link exists between EI and Authentic Leadership. Indeed, George (2016) notes that “the essence of authentic leadership is emotional intelligence”. The comprehensive meta-analysis undertaken by Miao et al. (2018) indicated that: EI is significantly and positively related to authentic leadership.

So, what does this mean for practitioners and learners alike? Well, the two go hand in hand. By increasing our strengths in one, we will also be developing our strengths in the other. Consequently, it is helpful to provide learners with an understanding of how the two philosophies (we are opening a can of worms calling EI and Authentic Leadership philosophies) dovetail. Doing so will enable your learners to wade through what can often feel like a ‘hard to practice’ subject area. Regardless of how you tackle this process, the first and most crucial step on anyone’s leadership learning journey is gaining self-awareness, so use that as your launchpad.


  • Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumba, F. O. (2005). Can you see the real me? A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly.
  • Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.
  • George, W (2003). Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • George, W. (2016). The Truth About Authentic Leaders. Online: (accessed Jan 2022)
  • Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualisation of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 1 – 26
  • Maibom, H.L. (2014). Empathy and Morality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2003). On assimilating identities to the self: A self-determination theory perspective on internalisation and integrity within cultures. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 253–272). New York: Guilford Press
  • Ugazio, G., Majdandžić, J., and Lamm, C. (2014). “Are empathy and morality linked? Insights from moral psychology, social and decision neuroscience, and philosophy,” in Empathy in Morality, ed. H. L. Maibom (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 155–171.
  • Walumbwa, F.O., Avolio, B.J., Gardner, W.L., Wernsing, T.S. and Peterson, S.J. (2008), “Authentic leadership: development and validation of a theory-based measure”, Journal of Management, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 89-126.