Learning to lead with authenticity

What makes a good leader? What are the essential qualities a good leader should embody, and how can you learn to be a better leader? These questions are likely to be discussion points in any good leadership-training programme. However, to really understand the essential qualities of leadership and how you can become a better leader, you need to do more than talk about it. You have to start at the very beginning, with yourself.


Self-awareness and the ability to reflect on our own behaviour and on the behaviour of those around us has become even more relevant in these turbulent and unpredictable times. Authentic leadership is needed now more than ever at a time where trust is being eroded across the social, political, and economic spectrum of society.


“Know thyself” is the starting point of Peter Berends’s and Jeroen Duijsens’s Leadership in Practice training. This core module forms part of the Executive MBA track of the MaastrichtMBA, Organisations in Times of Change. Peter, a coach and trainer in the fields of Management and Leadership for more than twenty years first introduces the theoretical ideas around authentic leadership before moving into the practice.


“The dominant way of working during the skills training is reflection, experiencing and experimenting. Doing is important – we try to avoid talking ´about´ authentic leadership. Our main objective is supporting you in discovering your uniqueness.”

Two system of thought

The practice element of the leadership training employs elements that would sit comfortably in a counselling, psychology or even a drama workshop. One of the activities the participants are asked to do is to pick a person to follow in the group and then move around the space quietly following that person. Then they are told to choose another person they have to avoid, whilst still following their original target.


The group becomes a swarm of movement, a combination of stealth and urgency. In the physical ‘doing’ of the activity, the participants embody aspects of what Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, refers to as two systems of thought, in his best-selling book ”Thinking Fast and Slow”. There is the fast, instinctive and emotional side of thought, versus the slower, more deliberate, logical side. Kahneman, a psychologist by training, suggests that these two speeds co-exist in all of us, and can act as both a trigger and a complement to our behaviour.


A self-reflective approach

Jeroen Duijsens, a consultant and interim manager, who together with Peter Berends coordinates the training programme, talks about the particular learning approach on the course.


“The module is based on the ideas that leading is a personal experience. In order to lead a team and organisation, you need to understand how you lead yourself. Why do you see things which other people do not see and vice versa. How do you deal with that? This course is about experiencing your own leadership and reflecting on that.”


Participants took part in a number of activities as part of the leadership-in-practice module. From using visualisation techniques to aide self-reflections on leadership in different aspects of their lives, to using props to represent their lifeline including the good and the bad, all the activities were done within a psychologically safe space where the rules of engagement were discussed and agreed upon by the group beforehand. Through the action of doing and sharing their life stories in pairs, each participant was learning about their own sense of self, of the importance of listening and trust, sharing their strengths and their weaknesses. All the aspects of authentic leadership came into play throughout the activities.

Practice what you preach

The application of knowledge is important. The learning by doing puts into practice the four key pillars of authentic leadership, which Bill George talks about in his book, “Finding your True North”.

  • Self-awareness: knowing your real strengths and weaknesses, understanding how other people perceive you, aware of how your thoughts and emotions influence your language and behaviours and, therefore, the impact you have on others.
  • Relational transparency: being honest and straightforward in dealing with others, effective confronting skills but also know how to listen effectively.
  • Balanced processing: being able to invite opposing viewpoints and maintaining a dialogue.
  • An internalised moral perspective: knowing what your values are, where you are heading (your purpose) that you can use as an actionable compass.


What does good leadership mean?

Mariëlle Heijltjes, Professor of Managerial Behaviour & Executive Director of UMIO defines leadership as “not about being the boss, having power or being the smartest. Leadership is about creating an environment in which one is respected and optimally enabled to execute one’s tasks.” Marielle adds that good leadership is about creating ”an environment in which the employee follows the leader out of free will and not because it is required or because sanctions are feared. The leader creates a setting based on integrity: (s)he says what (s)he thinks and does what (s)he says. Behaviour that appears to be all but easy in practice. Indeed, such behaviour requires extensive self-awareness, ability to reflect on one’s own behaviour and courage”.



This article was conducted in cooperation with the recently launched UMIO – Prime platform, an initiative of UMIO | Maastricht University and the Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics.

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