Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore subjective life histories and leadership journeys of senior leaders, drawing upon elements of an authentic leadership framework (life trigger events, values and emotions). The paper surfaces partial life histories and the often unheard of individual experiences of becoming a leader, offering stories to others as a media for learning and extending authentic leadership theory. Design/methodology/approach – The paper draws upon a qualitative empirical study engaging 22 UK senior leaders in semi-structured interviews, involving a life-history approach to generate subjective narratives of how individuals establish and sustain leadership. Findings – The empirical data highlights that elements of authentic leadership theory resonate in practice. Senior leaders' life histories and in particular negative trigger events are significant to their approach as leaders. The values of honesty and integrity were important to the leaders, with some able to sustain their values uncompromisingly. The leaders openly expressed emotion and vulnerability when re-telling their stories, but whether they do so as leaders in relationships with others, requires further research. Authentic leadership theory may be over simplified in terms of emotion and vulnerability in practice. Practical implications – Elements of authentic leadership offer alternative understandings of experiences of leaders. The life history approach enables important insights into leaders' subjective realities and should be integral to leadership development approaches. Originality/value – The paper offers empirical data from UK senior leaders, highlighting the unheard of strutting and fretting of leadership and contributing empirical research to authentic leadership theory.