Authentic Leadership

Gardner, W.L., Avolio, B.J., Luthans, F., May, D.R. & Walumbwa, F. 2005, ‘“Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development’, The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 343-72.

I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve worked in corporate and arts environments and had more jobs than I can count on one hand.  I’ve been a leader and been led by many others, so I feel I’ve had exposure to the good, bad and the ugly of leadership in practice.

One of the most interesting periods in my life was the eight or so years I worked for a major bank in Melbourne.  It was a challenging time to work for a bank, the height of ‘bank-bashing’ (which has never really gone away) where I used to make up a different job when I caught a taxi as I didn’t want to face a barrage of abuse.  During my time with this organisation a new CEO was appointed, and an ambitious exercise in ‘cultural change’ was undertaken.  The basis of this program was aligning organisational core values with people’s values (be it staff, customers or community.)

The program was driven by the CEO, had a lot of money behind it, and included training, communications and all the bells and whistles associated with a major program.  Key staff were selected to work within the division that oversaw the program, a highly prized posting as they not only were paid well but they had ‘funky’ offices and we clearly the cool people to sit with in the corporate playground.

To be firmly initiated into the program staff went on training courses, some for 3-days, some for 1 and others for the afternoon. I had a HR role at the time that saw me exposed to key organisational talent and incoming graduates, so I was selected as one of the first to go on the three-day residential program.  It was seen as quite an honour.

The three days focussed on authenticity, on bringing ‘your whole self to work.’ The organisation wanted to remove the professional facade that people felt they needed to have.  They wanted organisational values to align to personal values, and for people to feel pride in where they worked.  The program was quite confronting personally. Techniques were used to get people to open up in ways that weren’t usually seen on leadership courses.  This resulted in some pretty big occurrences; people leaving marriages or coming out at work. It was said that many would choose to leave the organisation after this experience, because they felt that there wasn’t a values alignment.

For me it started a journey of personal reflection that in some ways I am still on today, but at the same time it made me quite uncomfortable.  It didn’t take much research to see the training and language aligned to programs like “Landmark” and touched on the techniques used in cults.  We joked it was a cult with only half smiles.

This weekend I focused on reading about authentic leadership, starting with the article listed above.  And while this was published in 2005, and my experiences were 2001-2004, I felt shivers of recognition.  Noted the term  authentic leadership was first discussed by Bass around 1995. There is no doubt that the foundations in which these programs were built on were the theories of authentic leadership and emotional intelligence.  And even reading them 10 years later makes me question the techniques and think about personal experience.

According to Gardner et al authentic leadership is a process whereby leaders and followers experience growth by becoming more authentic. With authenticity defined as: “owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs, processes captured by the injunction to know oneself.”

An authentic leader achieves authenticity through self-awareness, self-acceptance and actions and relationships.  Authentic relationships are describes as those with transparency, openness, trust, guidance toward worthy objectives and an emphasis on follower development. By being true to one’s core beliefs and values and exhibiting authentic behaviour, the leader positively fosters the development of associates until they become leaders themselves.

(Anyone who went through the experiences I did will recognise the language.)

From an organisation perspective, it is argues that through improved self-awareness and follower development there will be a stronger identification with, and achievement of, organisational goals.  Authentic leadership is an answer to the dark side of charismatic leadership, or so it is claimed.  A truly authentic leader is supposed to be highly moral, they expand the domain of effective freedom and empower others. Inauthentic leaders have unchecked self-interest and encourage others to treat followers as a means to an end.

Ford, J. & Harding, N. 2011, ‘The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership’, Leadership, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 463-79.

In this critical article Ford and Harding unravel the positivist language and assumptions of authentic leadership development.  They argue that within the core philosophy of the model lies the reasons for its defeat: namely that to be seen as authentic leaders (and by extension followers) subscribe to the core values of the group (or in the organisation) and therefore authenticity in this case means “the inability to distinguish between the self and the organisation.” (468)  How then can a person be self-aware and fully demonstrate their true nature and be aligned to the organisation’s values? Such a similarity couldn’t exit.

If I reflect back the experience I had this was indeed the case. Authentic leadership was defined as ‘bringing one’s whole self to work’ yet at the same time manifesting the organisation values, which were displayed on wallet sides plastic cards people were encouraged to keep with them, and refer to, when decision making.  See it WAS a cult.

Ford and Harding continue to say that the whole authentic leadership approach can be seen as a form of organisational control of staff:

Thus our first charge against this model is that an approach which claims the high ground of morals it itself immoral, for it is designed to bend people further to the organisational grindstone without their knowing they are so bent. (470)

There’s further elaboration of the psychoanalytic underpinnings of identity and self in these circumstances, to explain why authentic leadership is destined to fail, but also why it’s potentially quite an insidious tool of oppression. Now I may have been reading a bit too much Foucault these days, but it all comes across as quite sinister.

Having lived through this type of leadership training it now makes me very aware of why I felt so uncomfortable with it at the time.


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