Leadership is an expansive term with many definitions and applications. Over the years, adjectives have been applied in an effort to further define and narrow its scope and application, i.e., transactional, transformational, and servant. The term authentic leadership is no different. However, what sets it apart as a field of study and method of practice is both its definition and innuendo.
Defining authenticity in terms of values, ethics, and self-will delineate its meaning in terms of its application and relevance amongst contemporary theories. Furthermore, identifying it as a brand of leadership will demonstrate its value — both intrinsic and external.
Authentic leadership is a generic term that connotes genuineness. That is, it conveys to the follower the leader is the real thing as compared to others. This article explores the meaning of the term authentic in terms of values and ethics and identifies it as part of a personal branding process in regard to leadership.
Contrary to the basic sciences, where well-established laws and accepted theories govern the scientific phenomena, the social science study of behavior in organizations is elusive in that it is difficult to define, and, as such, it remains an incomplete study of the causes and consequences of complex human interactions (Jago, 1982).
Competing, equivocal explanations of organizational events abound, each distinguished by unique implications for an aspiring or practicing leader attempting to apply social science and personal knowledge toward solving the problems encountered by his or her organizational role.
Despite thousands of empirical investigations of leadership styles conducted throughout history, no clear and indisputable understanding or definition exists as to the characteristics and qualities that distinguish leaders from non-leaders, and, more importantly, effective leaders from ineffective.
Many comprehensive reviews of leadership research have aimed to fill gaps in the accumulation of knowledge to broaden the understanding of leadership behaviors (Dinh et al., 2014); the vast literature is concerned with a search for the one best theory of leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011).
Organizations need leaders with a unified purpose who lead with integrity and values, but they also need leaders who can motivate their followers to sustain organizational effectiveness with the aim of creating long term value for all persons involved.
Therefore, consideration of both the ethics and effectiveness of leaders is critical to sustain positive attitudes and behaviors of the followers that promote the attainment of organizational objectives.
A multitude of interpretations exist pertaining to leadership that try to offer insight into the roles of leaders and what motivates their followers, but each attempt remains incomplete in explaining these complex relationships (Jago, 1982). Fewer areas of research in behavioral science have gotten greater focus than leadership styles (for example, an average of 10 articles a day pertaining to leadership were published in the 1990s), yet the results of these efforts has yet to yield a comprehensive conclusion (Ford & Harding, 2011; Jago, 1982).
Stogdill (1972) astutely notes that “there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept” (p. 26). One definition states that leadership is “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2016, p. 3). Another defines leadership as the “quality of behavior of individuals whereby they guide people or their activities in an organized effort” (Novicevic, Davis, Dorn, Buckley, & Brown, 2005, p. 1400). The scope of leadership is different depending on the definition. The former definition views leadership as a process, while the latter relates to behavior (Bishop, 2013), yet both can be viewed as accurate descriptions of leadership and the role of leaders within an organization.
Jago (1982) offers the following definition:
Leadership is both a process and a property. The process of leadership is the use of noncoercive influence to direct and coordinate the activities of the members of an organized group toward the accomplishment of group objectives. As a property, leadership is the set of qualities or characteristics attributed to those who are perceived to successfully employ such influence (p. 315).
Suddaby (2010) points out the need for construct clarity in management research to “create a precise and parsimonious categorical distinctions between concepts and show their semantic relationship to other, related constructs” (p. 387). Because leadership is such an expansive term with many definitions and applications, many adjectives have been used to describe and define its scope and application throughout the years such as: transactional, transformational, servant, authentic, and situational (Bishop, 2013). All these terms deal with a different type of leadership and differentiate one style from another by identifying situations and cultures for which they are best suited (Bishop, 2013).
Scholarly research on the topic of leadership has witnessed a dramatic increase over the last decade, resulting in the development of even more diverse leadership theories (Dinh et al., 2014). A central theme emerges from these theories concerning the impact of leadership style, characterized by a focus on the pattern of attitudes that leaders possess and the behaviors they exhibit (Anderson & Sun, 2017). Particularly, the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in scholarly interest in the topic of authentic leadership (Gardner, Cogliser, Davis, & Dickens, 2011) in an attempt to add to the ongoing study of leadership and expand its application in organizations. This is due, in large part, to the unique stressors facing organizations throughout the world today, and loss of trust in corporate and political leadership, leading to a simultaneous desire for a more simple, transparent and trustworthy leadership style, and calling for a renewed focus on what constitutes genuine, authentic leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Diddams & Chang, 2012).
Discussion and Critique of Authentic Leadership
Authentic leadership represents a style of leadership marked by self-awareness, balanced processing of information, relational transparency with followers, and an internalized moral perspective (Gardner et al., 2011). An attitude of authenticity in the relationship between leaders and followers develops from the influences of the inner thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of both parties (Duignan & Bhindi, 1997; George, 2004). Empirical research has established positive relationships between authentic leadership and positive individual, collaborative, and organizational outcomes (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Gardner & Carlson, 2015; Gardner et al., 2011; Hui-Bing & Ping, 2014; Olaniyan & Hystad, 2016; Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, & Peterson, 2007). Authentic leadership is becoming increasingly prominent as a leadership style, offering solutions for the weaknesses of previous models of leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). However, a critical analysis of the authentic leadership model unveils areas of concern and the potential deleterious effects on individuals and organizations practicing this type of leadership.
Authenticity and Authentic Leadership
The etymology of the word authenticity can be traced to ancient Greek philosophy, derived from the Greek word authento, meaning “to have full power” and the aphorism “Know Thyself” (Gardner et al., 2011). This reflects the ideology that successful authentic functioning is mastery of one’s true self in the context of one’s domain (George, 2004). Luthans, Norman, and Hughes (2006) describe authenticity as owning one’s individual experiences, including one’s thoughts, beliefs, desires, and emotions. Consequently, it involves sentience, self-awareness, and a willingness to act in accordance with one’s beliefs and perceptions, a concept of authenticity referred to as one’s “true self” (Luthans et al., 2006). To its followers, authenticity represents hopefulness, self-confidence, and a sense of mastery over a given situation as an alternative to anxiety and dependence on others when challenges arise, (Luthans et al., 2006). Through this lens of authenticity, leadership is the embodiment of “a pattern of leader behavior that draws on and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development” (Walumbwa et al., 2007, p. 94)
The authentic leadership construct was developed over 20 years ago (Terry, 1993), but its emerging prominence has been the result of the increase in social anxiety accompanying the recent disasters and economical changes, and stems from a prevalent desire to elect public and corporate leaders who operate transparently, champion optimism in the face of challenges, and exemplify the virtues of courage, ethics, and integrity (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Gardner & Carlson, 2015; Gardner et al., 2011). In the context of academia, authentic leadership coalesces well with the tenets of positive psychology and organizational behavior that focus on the cultivation of one’s aptitudes and virtues and emphasize behavior that mirrors one’s internal values (Walumbwa et al., 2007). Authentic leadership is a construct that serves as a point of departure from other forms of leadership (i.e. transactional, transformational, and situational). A transactional or transformational leader may possess authentic qualities, and fall within a range of authenticity, but an authentic leader is not confined to a specific leadership style (Luthans et al., 2006). Kernis (2003) defined authenticity, in his work regarding the nature of optimal self-esteem, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true, or core, self in one’s daily enterprise” (p. 13), and outlined four tenets of authenticity: self-awareness, unbiased processing, authentic action, and relational transparency.
The term authentic leadership has evolved since it was first defined, and is now based on a four-dimensional model:
(i) Self-awareness, which is 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; (ii) relational transparency, which is presenting one’s authentic self (as opposed to a fake or distorted self); (iii) balanced processing, which is the extent to which leaders show that they objectively analyze all relevant data before coming to a decision [and] solicit views that challenge their deeply held positions; (iv) internalized moral perspective, which refers to an internalized and integrated form of self-regulation [that] is guided by internal moral standards and values versus group, organizational, and societal pressures (Walumbwa et al., 2007).
In their current definition of authentic leadership, Walumbwa and his colleagues (2015) attach special significance to the quality of transparency in leader-follower interactions. This demands a keen sense of self-awareness and grasp on one’s internalized beliefs and value system. In further detail, they delineate transparency as a “pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capabilities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development” (Walumbwa et al., 2007, p. 94).
The public demand for accountability, integrity, courage, and transparency of leadership has justified the rising interest in the authentic leadership model by emphasizing leaders’ responsibility to be transparent, and act in manner that reflects their internal principles based on a moral compass (Anderson & Sun, 2017; Novicevic et al., 2005). These integral tenets of authentic leadership were deemed so important, in fact, that the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses chose to include it as one of the six standards necessary for establishing and sustaining Health Work Environments (Pinkerton, 2005). This concept readily translates to fields beyond healthcare to any environment where intrapersonal relations and genuine leadership is key. As the construct matured over time, research on authentic leadership has yielded promising outcomes. Compared to other leadership styles, authentic leaders demonstrated a stronger sense of commitment to their organizations (Walumbwa et al., 2007), exhibited better conduct among their colleagues (Gardner et al., 2011), and experienced higher employee engagement (Hui-Bing & Ping, 2014), while their followers reported greater trust, demonstrated a higher commitment to the cause or goal of the organization (Hui-Bing & Ping, 2014; Olaniyan & Hystad, 2016) and were more satisfied with their leadership (Diddams & Chang, 2012).
Successful authentic leaders inspire their followers and bring hope, relationship-centered principles, and inspiration to their workplace or organization’s environment every day (Kerfoot, 2006). Goffee and Jones (2005) point out that a leader cannot define him or herself as an authentic leader; only the people who experience the leadership can ascribe authenticity to the leader, whereby his or her authenticity as a leader must be perceived by others. They also note two ways to manage the perception of authenticity: first, a leader’s words must be consistent with his deeds; second, common ground must be established with his followers. Authentic leaders inspire followers’ trust through their multifaceted exploitation of their own strengths and weaknesses, which creates consistency, transparency, and a non-defensive environment that allows followers to feel comfortable to provide criticism or input, and a clear rationale for the leader’s choices (Kernis, 2003).
Current literature portrays the authentic leadership model as a developmental process based on identifying, broadening, and fortifying a leader’s strengths (Gardner et al., 2011), but limited attention is given to recognition of or recommendations for subsidizing a leader’s weaknesses. Thorough inventory of one’s capabilities is a critical component of authenticity, so an exploration of weaknesses’ impact on leadership is worthwhile to ensure lasting success for both individual leaders and the leadership model alike. Geoff and Jones (2006) argue that the strongest leaders are those who are most critically aware of their own weaknesses, equipping them to handle opposition and criticism constructively instead of becoming defensive. They are successful because they know their own limitations and delegate tasks to others who are better-suited, creating opportunities for others to contribute and maintain maximum productivity and efficiency for the organization. It is critical for authentic leadership success that more research investigates weaknesses of both individual leaders and the model’s principle tenets so that both leaders and followers can benefit.
Critique of Authentic Leadership
Though the concept of authentic leadership includes a non-defensive stance that recognizes a leader’s weaknesses as well as strengths, there is a dearth of literature examining the role weaknesses play in strengthening authenticity and the effectiveness of authentic leaders. A hallmark of authentic leadership is using a balanced approach to process information about one’s self; the fact that the literature has mainly focused on a strength-based approach provides no guidance on how to process negative self-referenced information. This positive focus alone may weaken leadership effectiveness by increasing defensiveness and lessening motivation toward development as leaders become aware of their own weaknesses.
Undoubtedly, authentic leadership’s main disadvantage is the deficiency of research material available due to its recent emergence. Since there is not one unanimous, coherent theory, it is difficult to perform a proper analysis of authentic leadership’s benefits or pitfalls. According Luthans and his research group (2006), the “positive organizational behavior states of optimism, resiliency, and hope, and the overall measure of Psychological capital (PsyCap), were positively related to authentic leadership.” However, very few studies have linked authentic leadership to positive outcomes with any statistical significance, and control for other leadership styles is rare. In the literature review, there was discussion of the scale development efforts of the Gardner group, who found a correlation between authentic leadership and an increase in organizational commitment and follower satisfaction with supervisors (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Gardner & Carlson, 2015; Gardner et al., 2011; Walumbwa et al., 2007). However, transformational leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005) and ethical leadership (Walumbwa et al., 2007) were the only other leadership models controlled for; most of their recently published work finding did not control for any other leadership style (Gardner & Carlson, 2015).
Theoretically, by having a strong level of self-awareness, authentic leaders can more effectively guide their own decisions and behaviors (Luthans et al., 2006). The idea of presenting oneself as human, fallible, and undergoing an ongoing developmental process is an attractive quality of authentic leaders. However, there is a difference between being a leader who might be unsure of what he stands for, and being a leader who clearly articulates what he stands for but is unaware that he is not the thing or things for which he stands.
Avolio and Gardner (2005) defined balanced processing as the ability to objectively analyze relevant data before making a decision. As the concept suggests, it is an “active state of seeking input and non-defensively considering others’ ideas” (Gardner et al., 2011). In this line of thinking, Kernis (2003) also suggested that unbiased processing, which requires objectivity, acceptance, and realistic self-appraisal, is an essential component of authenticity. However, the processing time necessary for evaluating the group’s input might hinder an organization’s productivity and decision-making process in a pinch. As the leader gathers feedback and listens to other opinions before using his or her judgment,
Other issues with authentic leadership should be considered as well. It is possible that some leaders may attempt to project the quality of authenticity in order to beguile their followers as part of a self-serving ruse. Claiming to be authentic, they placate their followers into compliance by assuring that they are being transparent, when hidden agendas my be involved.
Internalized Moral Perspective
An unresolved question is whether ethics should be an inherent part of authentic leadership. The work of Gardner et al. (2011) showed that there is an “explicit inclusion of an ethical component in most conceptions of authentic leadership” (p. 1130). Others argue that authenticity is not intrinsically ethical (Diddams & Chang, 2012; Ford & Harding, 2011; Gardner et al., 2011; Hui-Bing & Ping, 2014). Walumbwa and his colleagues (2007) argue that, by including ethics, narcissistic leaders and the like are excluded from the picture. However, Goffee and Jones (2005) argue that authenticity is essentially narcissitic in that it encourages individuals to look inward before looking outward, prioritizing the idea of “to thine own self be true” (p. 92). What is certain is that authentic leadership fails, on a fundamental level, to adopt a standard for determining what should be considered as ethical or unethical behavior, a critical oversight, considering the complexities of such issues (Anderson & Sun, 2017; Diddams & Chang, 2012; Ford & Harding, 2011; George, 2004).
Others, such as Northouse (2016), also address the ambiguity that accompanies such a topic. Northouse pointed out that the moral component can cause contradicting objectives within an organization. The leader’s values might not always align with what is right for the organization or its shareholders. In fact, the needs of the subordinates and other stakeholders might not always meet. Therefore, a leader might find him- or herself in a situation where they have to either sacrifice their inner value of providing employee bonuses or provide these bonuses in order to grow the company’s sale potential.
This attribute of authentic leadership refers to openly sharing information and feelings as appropriate for situations in a way that leads people to perceive a sense of authenticity in their leader (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). A problem that can arise for this type of authentic leadership is that one can be authentic and inept at the same time. There is a difference between playing to one’s shortcomings in an attempt to relate to the audience, and making excuses for oneself by insinuating that followers should be accepting of one’s inadequacies at the expense of the overall good of the mission or purpose of the organization. At times, the overly personal exposure is serving as a cover-up for professional incompetence. For these leaders and their followers, blindly accepting and excusing weaknesses which were presented as benign idiosyncrasies can lead to disappointment and even devastating consequences for the hopeful constituents and followers.
Authentic leaders know which personality traits they should reveal, when and to whom depending on the situation, so therein lies the potential for leaders to manipulate the way in which they appear to and are perceived by their followers. Technically, then, the only way that such leaders could remain authentic is if the image they project is identical to the aspects of their true selves. In order to retain the values of honesty and integrity, while reserving the ability to control one’s perception by others, one’s words and actions would have to match (Goffee & Jones, 2005). They assert that presenting one’s self differently to different audiences thus remains authentic so long as it is done not to manipulate but to accurately reflect aspects of the leader’s inner self, but the question becomes whether or not this is actually happening.
From the perspective of the followers, two outcomes may present themselves under authentic leadership. On one hand, Walumba and his colleagues (2007) theorize that transparency of a leader’s values and goals throughout varying situations would result in the followers aligning themselves to the values of their leaders. This theory ignores the fact that followers, as individuals themselves, would likely have their own distinct set of beliefs. Authenticity would dictate that individual followers be true to their own values as well. Therefore, an increase in authenticity could potentially lead to increased disparity rather than alignment as predicted. On the other hand, followers with a weaker sense of self-identity may be too susceptible to the alignment of values. Authentic and transparent leadership may effect such an individual so much so, that they identify and assimilate to the leader and his values to an extent that they become inauthentic to themselves, losing their core characteristics to automated imitation.
Future Directions and Conclusion
Authentic leadership is a concept that has captured the attention of multiple sectors, including businesses, organizations, and academia. Overall it has made a positive impression, espousing authenticity, honesty, moral behavior, and transparency through its leaders and effected followers. Yet, upon further critical review, it appears that there is more than meets the eye in terms of the challenges that authenticity creates. As in most cases, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. While authenticity should not be viewed as the panacea of leadership, it is safe to say that self-awareness, transparency and honesty paired with a healthy measure of self-acceptance and a drive for intentional personal growth can strike a potent balance for both leaders and followers alike.
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