In today’s turbulent economic and political climate, it seems that we are becoming dissatisfied and disillusioned with corporate leaders. A recent global survey by Kenexa® reports that only 38 percent of employees rate their leaders as effective. This is a shocking statistic that paints a bleak picture of leaders. However, it is even more worrying when our research also shows that employee engagement is actually five times higher for those employees who believe their leaders are effective, compared to those who say they follow neutral or ineffective leaders.
This loss of faith in contemporary leaders has propelled researchers and practitioners to take a renewed interest in the concept of authentic leadership.
Core elements of authentic leadership
As different perspectives on authentic leadership are emerging, there are some commonalities between them in terms of their core elements. These have direct implications for leadership development.
Authentic leaders are true to themselves and aware of their own values, beliefs, strengths, identity, sense of purpose, emotions, motivations, goals and their impact on others. Self-awareness is a constantly evolving process in which leaders continually become aware of their experiences and the context in which they operate.
Self-regulation is a process by which leaders align their experiences with their actions and intentions. Self-awareness enables leaders to lead from their own personal convictions. Many organisations have cultivated a culture in which leaders are trying to attain perfection, and a lot of leadership development attempts to help leaders achieve it. However, this contradicts the notion of authenticity, which cannot be achieved by adopting someone else’s image, style, methods or behaviors.
Leaders can learn from the experiences of others, but to be authentic, they must lead in their own way. In the current, results-driven and highly political organisational climate, being true to yourself is not always easy. It requires strength of character and personal courage.
Leaders can learn to be authentic. They need to use their personal courage to be open about confronting their life stories, roots and experiences—the positive as well as the negative ones. This is a crucial step in authentic leadership development and may mean that the leader has to reveal not only his/her strengths but also some of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
The ethical and moral dimension
Having invested a lot personally, authentic leaders care about what they do and work toward long-term and sustainable results. Authentic leaders also understand the impact they have on others, take responsibility for it and care for people. This is one of the most important and appealing components of authentic leadership and has important implications for development.
Organisations need to factor in a sense of ethics, responsibility and care when developing leaders. Bear this in mind when selling, purchasing and designing leadership development interventions and adopt a long-term focus and sustainable solutions.
Relational aspects: Followers, teams and organisational context
There are no leaders without followers. Leaders are authentic and truly powerful when followers choose to follow them.
Leaders lead not only individuals but also teams and they do so within an organisational context. Building personal relationships with followers is not enough. In order to be effective, leaders must understand the dynamics of groups that their followers belong to and other contextual variables. This is a process to transform groups into high performing teams.
An organisational context provides background to all the leadership interactions and can moderate opportunities for authentic leadership development.
As the authentic leadership framework emerges, it becomes obvious that authentic leadership development is a long and complex process that will not be given justice in a standard training program. It involves not only gaining self awareness, but also developing a sense of meaning, responsibility and ethics as well as building honest and authentic relationships.
Developing authentic leadership does not happen overnight. It is a continuous process demanding a high level of commitment and effort from the leader as well as the support of the organisation. However, the leaders who commit to this kind of development will be worth following.
About the author
Margot Zielinska is a consultant with Kenexa
This article originally features in trainingzone