What Drives the Authentic Leader?

Leaders who “keep it real” can be powerful levers of transformation. But equally powerful forces are blocking their way
What Drives the Authentic Leader?

The essentials

  • Authenticity is “a basic attitude that promotes harmony between managers’ actions, inner values, and personal convictions.”
  • Three factors appear to drive authenticity in the workplace: authority based on professional expertise; the feeling of belonging to a group while retaining a sense of individuality; and personal autonomy.
  • Obstacles are: organization size; poor work-life balance; “surface acting” (displaying emotions inconsistent with inner thoughts and feelings); and belief systems that affirm power and status differences.
  • To encourage authenticity, firms are advised to emphasize power based on personal attributes rather than power vested in organizational hierarchy; create a culture that values individuality and at the same time promotes a sense of belonging; and put in place work processes that enable autonomy.

Authentic managers and leaders — honest, transparent, reliable, sensible folk who are clear communicators —  are just the sort of people you want to shepherd organizations through confusing change. They enable others to be authentic as well.

But how does an organization encourage authentic leadership, or at least avoid snuffing it out?

A study, conducted by Eberhard Hübbe of the German consulting firm goetzpartners, Matthias Spitzmüller of Smith School of Business, and Lars Förster, a consultant, coach, and trainer, set out to learn more. The researchers conducted an online survey of 571 managers in Germany, the UK, and Russia in November 2015. The survey was developed based on the results of 20 one-hour interviews with managers with responsibility for up to 1,000 employees.

Citing a variety of findings and a host of recent scandals, the researchers say the rigid hierarchies and cultures of fear associated with a lack of authentic leadership can have a damaging effect on an organization. Authentic leadership has been shown to more than simply prevent these situations: it can also have a positive effect on team performance, encourage a greater resistance to rule-breaking behaviours, and inspire higher levels of employee commitment.

Authenticity should not be confused with simply saying what you think all the time. Authenticity, as defined by the researchers, is “a basic attitude that promotes harmony between managers’ actions, inner values, and personal convictions. It enables managers to actively steer their own actions rather than having those actions dictated by others.”

Driving Authenticity

Three factors appear to drive authenticity in the workplace.

One, authority based on professional expertise. This was found to be central to the experience of authenticity. Power based on personal attributes such as expertise and charisma facilitates authentic behaviour, while the exercise of power based on an organizational structure undermines it. Coercive power, for example, where managers are charged with disciplining their employees, had the weakest correlation.

Two, the feeling of belonging coupled with individuality. On its own, the ability to be an individual — to live out personal traits and idiosyncrasies in the workplace — was not a strong predictor of authentic behaviour. But when combined with a feeling of belonging, individuals’ ability to act authentically was strengthened. “People are at their best psychologically when they feel themselves to be in harmony with others and, at the same time, can reveal their unique inner self.”

And three, autonomy. People who are given real responsibility, “who can determine for themselves when, how, where, and with whom they complete a task,” experience a stronger sense of authenticity than others.

Overcoming Obstacles

On the flip side are a number of obstacles to developing and supporting authentic leaders. Some are inherent in an organization; eliminating them is not always an option. An example is the size of an organization. According to the study, feeling like a small player in a large organization can diminish a person’s experience of authenticity. But when people were given work they felt was important and had a positive effect on the lives of others, they tended to act in harmony with their inner values. This applied to even large organizations.

In high-pressure organizations, achieving work-life balance can also be difficult. This too can be mitigated, the researchers say. Feeling special, valued, and unique helped to diminish any conflict related to work-life balance. This may take the form of being given a special role that earns a high degree of recognition.

Yet another obstacle is what’s known as “surface acting,” defined by the researchers as “a type of behaviour in which people express feelings that are not in tune with their true inner emotions.” In some professions, particularly those focused on customer contact, the need for surface acting is particularly prevalent. If these situations cannot be avoided, the researchers suggest that understanding managers could help employees see their work as important, valued and unique.

Finally, the negative effects of power and status differences can be eased much like the pressures of work-life balance, by making people feel special, valued, and unique.

Creating Structural Change

By taking appropriate organizational measures, adopting new ideas in organizational design, and creating a more open corporate culture, the obstacles to authentic behaviour and leadership can be overcome. The researchers call on firms to seriously examine their organizational structure and culture for their effects on employees’ ability to act with authenticity.

Their study offers three steps that can support organizations in their efforts to promote a culture of authenticity.

One is to “value professional expertise and power vested in personal attributes” as opposed to purely functional power. A second is to create a corporate culture that values individuality and at the same time promotes a sense of belonging. And a third is to put in place work processes and a working environment that enable autonomous decision-making and reduce obstacles to authenticity.

“As far as organizational and cultural structures are concerned, companies can prepare the ground for more authenticity and credibility by finding new models of collaboration and involvement and new forms of hierarchy,” the study notes. “However, this presupposes a shift to a dramatically different understanding of transparency, participation, and leadership culture.”

Sparrow McGowan

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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