What Is Authentic Leadership & Why Is It Important?

What is Authentic Leadership?

Authentic Leadership was coined by businessmen Bill George and Peter Sims, and first represented in their book ‘True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership’ (Einola & Alvesson, 2021; George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007). George was CEO of Medtronic and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, while Sims delivered a class on leadership development at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and together they interviewed hundreds of executives to develop the concept of Authentic Leadership (George et al., 2007), however it is still establishing a foundation of academic evidence to substantiate its efficacy as a theory. For this reason, it may not be considered as an evidence-based leadership theory, but it’s valuable to understand it due to the popularity it seems to enjoy in the business world.  

What Does The Business World Say About Authentic Leadership?

In a colloquial sense, Authentic Leadership describes whether a leader appears to be being ‘true’ to themselves. George and Sims describe authentic leaders as those who “demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads… They know who they are.” (George et al., 2007). This last part of the definition raises the question: how do we know who they are? The broader literature on Authentic Leadership often highlights the importance of ‘others’ (typically followers) in making an assessment and attribution of a leader's authenticity. In this way, Authentic Leadership is a relational theory of leadership, as it involves the interplay between a leader's internal alignment of actions to values, and a follower’s perception of that alignment. While some articles on Authentic Leadership describe it as a concept located within the leader, or a value assigned to the leader (therefore located in the follower), others depict it as a dialogic achievement, where leaders and followers collaborate to produce particular interactional results between them (Larsson, Clifton, & Schnurr, 2021). The locus of Authentic Leadership therefore adds complexity to our understanding of it.

Authentic Leadership is often cited in situations where leaders are ‘acting out’. This type of leader is described in the literature as the ‘authentic jerk’, whose unfiltered expressions become an excuse for unprofessional behaviour under the guise of authenticity (Ladkin, 2021). However, Ladkin (2021) points out that “expression of the self must be enacted in a “leaderly manner” in order for it to be aligned with the demands of leading”. Here we can see that Authentic Leadership is not only about being truthful about one's feelings, but also being conscious of their suitability to social setting and cultural context, therefore giving more definition to Authentic Leadership’s relational interplay. This layer of social appropriateness and effective disclosure adds to our understanding of the core essence of Authentic Leadership, and its development utility in the complex social system of an organisation.

What Does The Research Say About Authentic Leadership??

The research evidence for Authentic Leadership is scant. Einola & Alvesson (2021) have been vocal in their review of Authentic Leadership, stating that “the proponents of the current version ... have not, at least in our view, demonstrated that such a theory is either viable or credible”. More specifically, they critique the method through which the theory was developed, and its substantiation in evidence, explaining that “Any good academic study cannot just line people up for interviews and take accounts more or less at face value.” (Einola & Alvesson, 2021).  Larsson, Clifton, & Schnurr (2021) further this argument, pointing out that the majority of studies conducted into Authentic Leadership are quantitative in nature, using reported instances of Authentic Leadership and retrospective business measurements as opposed to in-depth analyses of Authentic Leadership’s constructs. As illustrated through our discussion regarding the challenge of defining Authentic Leadership, it appears that it’s very difficult to study the theory using a scientific method.

And yet Walumbwa et al. (2008) have described a four-dimensional theory of Authentic Leadership, including: 

  1. self-awareness; 
  2. relational transparency (i.e., presenting one’s genuine self to others); 
  3. balanced processing; and 
  4. having an internalized moral perspective.

How Do We Develop Authentic Leadership Through Coaching?

In many coaching discussions, it is 1) self-awareness where leaders see the biggest opportunity to develop their Authentic Leadership - continuously working towards the goal of self-actualization, where they are behaving as their best self, and yet 2) relational transparency is the most common understanding of ‘authenticity’ in leadership. And yet not all leaders from all diverse backgrounds can fully enact this four-factor definition of Authentic Leadership, without fear of repercussion. 

Ladkin (2021) states that for ”...women, those of African, Latinx, or Asian descent, or those who identify as LGBTQ, expressing one’s “true self” when performing the role of leader is a luxury they can often ill afford” raising a concern for diverse leaders who are developed through coaching using the Authentic Leadership theory. Because leadership is a two-way social construct between leaders and followers, their interaction is encumbered by social biases, particularly racial and gender markers which are immediately obvious to followers. As leaders require the endorsement of their followers in Authentic Leadership, leaders are forced to find similarities with their followers in this model, in some cases hiding their true selves, creating a ‘double consciousness’ (Ladkin, 2021) where the leader may seek to be authentic while being concerned about how they are perceived. Einola & Alvesson (2021) explain that leaders developing Authentic Leadership can experience ‘identity trouble’, where managers become eager to subscribe to Authentic Leadership but experience adverse consequences from being “too authentic.”

Coaching may be utilized to great effect here, working with the leader and within the elected leadership framework of the organisation to explore personal identity and effective disclosure. Coaching is uniquely positioned to explore how the leader can reconcile double standards in a system, disadvantages, and feelings of belonging, to chart their own path forward. In this way, Authentic Leadership theory, however flawed, offers a ‘jumping off point’ for a leader and coach to explore the leaders’ unique development pathway as a leader, to circumvent these generic issues. 

In summary, Authentic Leadership is not substantiated in the academic literature, as the construct is circular and hard to measure, however since it is commonly used in business language, we should explore the meaning, and how coaching can have an impact on its development. 

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