Authentic leadership is a concept both highly revolutionary and extremely practical. It values personal virtue above selfish interests and emphasizes the importance of a leader’s words matching their actions. So why are there so many critics of a leadership style that has as its very foundation a focus on morality? Bill George, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets of Lasting Value and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, introduced authentic leadership in 2003 in the wake of such corporate scandals as Enron, WorldComm, Tyco, and Freddie Mac. George offered the antidote to morally-challenged corporate leaders, authentic leadership.
As it happens with innovative concepts that provide answers to complex moral questions, critics of this theory soon emerged objecting almost entirely based on the word “authentic.” After all, what does it really mean to be “authentic?” Following an exhaustive dictionary and thesaurus evaluation, the following represent the most common synonyms: genuine, real, true veritable, reliable, dependable, trustworthy, authoritative, faithful. So again, I ask, why the issue with George’s use of the word “authentic” in describing leadership? Answer: key critics of authentic leadership tend to conflate the word “authentic” with the impulse individuals possess to say or do everything on their minds.
However, demonstrating sound judgment in knowing when to say or not say what’s on your mind isn’t inauthentic, it’s wise. But what are the keys to seeking an authentic leadership style? Though not a comprehensive list of authentic leadership qualities, the following represent tangible methods any aspiring authentic leader can employ.
Self-regulation is one of the foremost keys to developing this leadership style. Embracing one’s unique personality and experiences is as authentic as demonstrating self-control when dealing with personal relationships. Ultimately, both qualities begin with effective self-evaluation.
Self-evaluation is extremely difficult but mastering such a discipline is a key component to authentic leadership. The process of self-evaluation benefits both the individual personally and the organization as a whole.
Self-evaluation alone does not a good leader make. Leaders need people, good people, people upon whom they can rely for advice and various levels of support. The best authentic-leaders create an inner circle comprising of individuals with skills that fill gaps in their leadership styles and challenge them to strive for a better sense of purpose.
Personal Values and Ethics
Possessing a genuine sense of personal values and principles will help the authentic leader better guide both the process of self-evaluation, but also interaction with other individuals within the organization. They provide the moral compass with which to follow when no one else is looking and the framework through which all decisions are made.
Authentic leadership is NOT a filterless representation of what you really think. That’s called stupidity. On the contrary, this style of leadership requires character, hard work, reflection, and a lot of self-control. Employed correctly, authentic leadership provides a moral basis for adapting one’s leadership style to any challenge, and a rich environment in which other aspiring leaders can grow.
What’s Wrong With Authentic Leadership?
Authentic leadership is a concept both highly revolutionary and extremely practical. It values personal virtue above selfish interests and emphasizes the importance of a leader’s words matching their actions. So why are there so many critics of a leadership style that has as its very foundation a focus on morality? Bill George, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and author oKyle Kramer Articles
More than a century of research indicates that there is almost an endless list of leadership definitions without unanimity, including over 90 variables for consideration (Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019; Winston & Patterson, 2006; Yukl, 2013). Over time, most researchers have come to a consensus that leadership is a complex process of influence toward a collective task (Hickman, 2015; Northouse, 2019; Yukl, 2013). In the same manner, there seems to be just as many leadership theories that have evolved over time. But, which leadership theory is the most effective for organizational transformation? What is the role of the leader and follower within the leadership theories that are beneficial or detrimental? Researchers from all over of the world have been trying to aggressively answer these questions in a plethora of studies for many years.
Through research findings, the theory of transformational leadership has become the rage in recent times. Setting challenging expectations, transformational leaders motivate followers through an exceptional form of influence to do more than originally intended or thought possible (Bass, 2008, Northouse, 2019). Much attention is given to the needs and motives of followers while the leaders strive to assist followers in reaching their fullest potential (Northouse, 2019). In the end, the leader and follower may transform from within having stronger moral values (Northouse, 2019). For example, Gandhi did transform millions of people while raising their hopes and demands, and at the same time, was changed himself. In addition, a series of studies reflected four factors of transformational leadership including idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Christie, Barling, & Turner, 2011). With a strong sense of moral values, transformational leaders use the four factors to create organizational turnaround.
Four Factors of Transformational Leadership
1. Idealized influence
2. Inspirational motivation
3. Intellectual stimulation
4. Individualized consideration
An emotional component of leadership known as charisma is a factor among transformational leaders. Transformational leaders lead by example through actions such as exhibiting bravery by taking risks and making difficult decisions. There is a great deal of trust from the followers, and the leaders are very respected (Northouse, 2019). Charismatic is a word often used to describe a transformational leader and one of the reasons why followers are inclined to support the vision and mission set forth (Bass, 2008). Have you ever experienced a charismatic leader who had high moral standards and led others through a positive change effort? To be part of such a change can be invigorating and spark the passion to achieve at a high degree of success.
Challenging individuals in a risk-free environment, while clearly communicating the expectations to generate commitment toward a shared vision is the role of inspirational motivation (Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019). Implementing the concept of a true team is enhanced within the theory of transformational leadership. Followers are influenced to achieve more than they could ever think possible as part of a team instead of in their own self-interest (Northouse, 2019). A leader who creates such a risk-free environment and promotes the team concept adds a bit of healthy competition to the organization is positively effecting change within an organization.
Leaders who encourage followers to be innovative and challenge the beliefs and values of the followers and self, provide intellectual stimulation and empowerment (Northouse, 2019). The leader enables followers to question organizational assumptions and discover ways to problem solve individually and within teams. Support is given to the followers as they try new approaches and develop ways to solve organizational issues. Careful problem solving is promoted through intellectual stimulation within a risk-free environment (Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019). An example of this type of leadership is a school principal who promotes teacher efforts to develop unique ways to solve barriers for students, so the students may reach a level of proficiency in core subjects such as reading or math.
A leader who finds personalized ways to engage with followers exhibits individualized consideration. Listening to the individuals needs and acting as a coach for the purpose of assisting followers to reach their fullest potentials are traits of a transformational leader (Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019). Through a supportive environment, new learning opportunities are created, two-way communication is encouraged, and tasks are delegated (Bass, 2008). Recognizing qualities in others despite cultural differences builds trust and empowers followers to achieve and the basis of individualized consideration a transformation leader implements with fidelity (Bass, 2008; Greenleaf, Spears, Covey, & Senge, 2002).
Relevance to Organizational Improvement
As a school district executive administrator in one of the largest districts in the nation with approximately 96,000 students, strategically placing transformational leaders within the organizational structure has proven effective. There is a direct correlation between the school principal and student achievement, and this correlation is significant when implementing themes or theories of leadership (Crum, Sherman, & Myran, 2010; Shaw & Newton, 2014). Moreover, significant relationships exist between school leadership and learning, as well as specific principal behaviors producing a direct relationship with teacher’s career decisions (Boyd et al., 2011; Nettles & Herrington, 2007). Knowing the research of the impact of a school principal within the organization of a school, the school principals exhibiting the four factors of transformational leadership were placed in the most struggling schools in the school district. Within four years of implementing this organizational change, there has been a significant decrease from 22 struggling schools according to the state accountability system to one struggling school. Students within these schools now have a greater chance of graduating high school because of the significant increase in proficiency and growth in core academics. The school principals within these schools created an environment where both students and teachers achieved far more than ever thought possible.
Value to the Field of Study
Transformational leadership has several positive implications for a variety of organizations. Because this leadership style has a large emphasis on focusing on followers’ needs and providing a sense of empowerment, the style has a strong intuitive appeal (Bass, 2008). Followers’ perceptions of a leader with transformational leadership factors enhance organizational outcomes. Furthermore, transformational leaders place a strong emphasis on morals and values. For example, as previously mentioned, providing students in the struggling schools opportunities to demonstrate proficiency is our moral and ethical obligation to the students and community. In this case, not only did the teachers have an opportunity for growth, the students did as well.
In conclusion, transformational leadership promotes high levels of goal mastery within organizations. The transformational leadership factors of idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration, when perceived by followers, lead to commitment to the leaders’ vision and mission. These factors when exhibited by a leader can lead to greater performance by both the leader and follower that goes well beyond what is expected. Is it the moral obligation of a leader to promote growth among followers while empowering and supporting efforts toward achieving challenging goals? Transformational leaders would say, yes, it is the moral obligation of a leader to promote the growth of others for the good of the organization.
Bass, B. M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, & managerial applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.
Boyd, D., Grossman, P., Ing, M., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2011). The influence of school administrators on teacher retention decisions. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 303–333.
Christie, A., Barling, J., & Turner, N., (2011). Pseudo-transformational leadership: Model specifications and outcomes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(12), 2943-2984.
Crum, K. S., Sherman, W. H., & Myran, S. (2010). Best practices of successful elementary school leaders. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(1), 48–63. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578231011015412
Greenleaf, R. K., Spears, L. C., Covey, S. R., & Senge, P. M. (2002). Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th anniversary ed.). New York: Paulist Press.
Hickman, G. R. (2015). Leading organizations: Perspectives for a new era (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Nettles, S. M., & Herrington, C. (2007). Revisiting the importance of the direct effects of school leadership on student achievement: The implications for school improvement policy.
Peabody Journal of Education, 82(4), 724–736. https://doi.org/10.1080/01619560701603239
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Shaw, J., & Newton, J. (2014). Teacher retention and satisfaction with a servant leader as principal. Education, 135(1), 101–106.
Winston, B. & Patterson, K. (2006). Integrative definition of leadership, International Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(2), 6-66.
Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Organizational Turnaround Through Transformational Leadership
More than a century of research indicates that there is almost an endless list of leadership definitions without unanimity, including over 90 variables for consideration (Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019; Winston & Patterson, 2006; Yukl, 2013). Over time, most researchers have come to a consensus that leadership is a complex process of influence toward a collective task (Hickman, 2015; NorthouShanna M. Flecha Articles
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