The emerging theory of authentic leadership

Being “authentic” has become a bit of an overused buzzword, and has lost some of its meaning. However, despite the concept not being fully mature in a theoretical or experimental sense, early research has shown that authentic leadership may improve team performance compared to traditional management.

Authentic leadership is an emerging theory that encourages managers to be genuine, self-aware and transparent when guiding their team. Let’s explore ​​the potential benefits of authentic leadership, and the strategies you can employ to authentically support your team in being as successful as possible.

The benefits of authentic leadership

Authentic leadership is a concept that was first formulated by Harvard professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George, who was adamant that new laws alone could not help to repair the corporate crisis. Instead, he claimed that new leaders and innovative styles of leadership were required to give corporations a chance of financial recovery.

Whereas a traditional leader in a large corporation might value profits above people, an authentic leader carefully balances tough ethical dilemmas with financial optimisation. 

Bill George considered that there are five essential dimensions of an authentic leader: purpose, values, heart, relationships and self-discipline. According to him, an authentic leader should work compassionately, valuing both the company and its employees.

So, why do teams value an authentic leader? Authentic leadership is seen as an antidote to unethical leadership. Fred Luthans and Bruce Avolio noted that an authentic leader is likely to appear more reliable and trustworthy to those who work with them.

Instead of a manager with a “work persona”, people enjoy working with a manager that behaves like their true self — a manager who is self-aware, who has developed a supportive professional relationship with each individual in the team, and who has a good understanding of their thoughts, emotions, or belief systems.

Traditional leadership might involve a manager working in a way that does not necessarily align with their own personal values. This can be confusing for colleagues, who might be left second guessing what is expected of them.

Researchers reported that this lack of clarity or ambiguity of what is expected can lead to a team working without direction. This is likely not only to reduce job satisfaction, but could also lower overall productivity.

In contrast, authentic leadership can make it far easier for co-workers to recognise your values, and predict or follow your instructions. It will require less effort to understand what you expect, helping the team to work in a more constructive and cohesive manner.

In a study of 51 teams, authentic leadership improved a teams’ drive to being the very best they could be. In turn, increased virtuousness led to greater team potency — the ability to succeed. The researchers concluded that authentic leadership can foster team motivation, thereby improving overall team performance. Win-win!

How to become an authentic leader

Most people do not undergo leadership training before becoming a leader, and so are learning to lead on the job. Although research into authentic leadership is in its infancy, some principles can be helpful when leading a team.

1) Define your ideals. Authentic leadership lies in upholding your personal and professional values. Before you can lead authentically, you will need to define your own ethical values and ideals of leadership. Although there will usually be a corporate goal in sight, those values should still guide your decisions as a leader.

2) Practise self-reflection. Self-reflection through journaling, self-awareness exercises, or investing in a career coach may help you to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and cognitive patterns such as likely reactions to certain situations. It will also help you to develop emotional intelligence so you can become more aware of how your team is feeling and support them appropriately.

3) Foster relational transparency. People are more likely to enjoy working with you and respect the decisions you make if you are transparent about your thought processes. The line between personal and professional does not have to become overly blurred, but it is important that your colleagues don’t feel like you have a hidden agenda.  

It takes courage, but openly sharing your strengths, weaknesses, and thought processes with your team shows them that you have nothing to hide, and that you are — like them — eager to keep on learning and growing. This level of transparency suggests that personal and professional growth is something to be supported and celebrated.

Authentic leadership remains an emerging but promising theory. Learning to lead in a new way takes time, but defining your own ideals, practising self-reflection and developing relational transparency with your co-workers is likely to lead to improved cohesion, satisfaction, psychological safety, and performance. Give it a try!

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