Authentic leadership is a relatively new leadership theory, needed because of pervasive ethical and moral leadership problems of the 21st century. The author conducts a personal exploration of authentic leadership in order to strengthen authentic leadership behaviors and shape new leadership opportunities. This paper provides an overview of authentic leadership theoretical perspectives, describes the use of the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire to assess follower perception of the author’s authentic leadership, and shares the results of the assessment. Furthermore, the paper outlines specific recommendations to increase the author’s self-awareness, building phronesis through a series of reflective and reflexive processes focused on developing the author’s leadership narrative and a perspective on the author’s aspirational self.
An Authentic Leadership Journey
A leadership self-assessment is about opportunity, the opportunity to be a better leader, to improve the lives of followers, and to make a difference. There are opportunities everywhere; businesses need to find new ways to create value, governments need to find new solutions to old problems, schools need to inspire a new generation of learners, and communities need new ways to improve the quality of life for their members. Leaders are needed to pursue the opportunities of the 21st century, because problems are increasingly global, interrelated, and complex. Consider the situation in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the Whirlpool refrigerator factory is closing, and 1000 workers will be laid off because of increased global competition and the opening of an offshore plant in Mexico (Bartels, 2011). Could the competitive situation at Whirlpool have been improved with the right leadership? How could state and local government have collaborated with Whirlpool to find new ways to add value? Who in the local community will emerge to stave off rampant unemployment and economic crisis? How will local schools, colleges, and universities rally to retool to local labor pool?
George (2006) considers the question, “What, then, is the 21st-century leader all about? It is being authentic, uniquely yourself, the genuine article” (p. 1). Authentic leadership is a relatively new leadership theory, arising from the ethical and moral leadership crisis’ so common in new century (F. Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, & Peterson, 2008); such as the Enron collapse, the global financial crisis, fictional intelligence used as pretext for war, the disappearing middle class, failure to reduce climate change, and countless other examples of leadership absent moral courage. Many in both academic and applied management writing see authenticity as the leadership prescription to help emerging leaders restore hope, optimism, and purpose, thereby increasing both self-efficacy and leader effectiveness (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; George, 2007; Kouzes & Posner, 2007; Sparrowe, 2005). Therefore, this author embarked on an authentic leadership journey to understand how improvements in leadership authenticity might shape new opportunities and strengthen personal leadership.
To describe the journey, this essay will include an overview of authentic leadership, describe the benefits of authentic leadership, describe the use of the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire as an instrument to assess authentic leadership, provide the results of the assessment, develop an analysis of the results, and develop recommendations to strengthen authentic leadership. In addition, this essay will describe how the authentic leadership assessment helped the author identify opportunities to improve self-awareness, develop a standard for future leadership, and potentially improve follower trust, organizational citizenship behavior, and team productivity as a result.
Authentic leadership is “the extent to which a leader is aware of and exhibits pattern of openness and clarity in his/her behavior toward others by sharing the information needed to make decisions, accepting others’ inputs, and disclosing his/her personal values, motives, and sentiments in a manner that enables followers to more accurately assess the competence and morality of the leader’s actions” (F. O. Walumbwa, Wang, Wang, Schaubroeck, & Avolio, 2010, p. 901) The origins of modern authentic leadership theory appear to stem from critical discourse of transformation leadership, as Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) sought to counter critical arguments suggesting transformational leadership was unethical. Critics argued that transformational leadership allowed for the manipulation of followers and argued the theory lack’s treatment of moral and ethical issues might develop unscrupulous leaders that use the theory for nefarious purposes (Avolio, 2010; Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). These concerns prompted Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) to differentiate between the authentic transformational leader and the pseudo-transformational leader. In 2001, Avolio (2010) began research to assure that leadership development did not simply develop pseudo-transformational leaders, rather focusing on “what ‘genuinely’ or ‘authentically’ developed leaders” (p. 1). During a literature review, Tonkin (2010) found a variety of early definitions of authentic leadership, also noting that Avolio appeared to be the thought leader of authentic leadership theory. Later, Avolio and Gardner (2005) developed a theoretical perspective of authentic leadership as distinct from other modern leadership theories, such as transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, and servant leadership, noting that transformational leaders require authenticity, while authentic leaders are not necessarily transformational.
Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, and Peterson (2008) published the results of a study designed to develop and test the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ), a theory-based measurement instrument for authentic leadership. In their study, Walumbwa, et al. (2008), found that the ALQ was both reliable and valid, authentic leadership could be discriminated from other leadership theories, and a positive relationship between authentic leadership and job performance. Their definition was based on social psychological theory, recognized the importance of an internalized moral perspective, and focused on the development of authenticity in leaders and followers (F. Walumbwa, et al., 2008). According to Walumbwa, et al., (2008), authentic leadership is defined as:
A pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development. (p. 94)
From the definition, the ALQ is based on the four dimensions outlined and defined below (Avolio, Gardner, & Walumbwa, 2007):
- Self-Awareness: To what degree is the leader aware of his or her strengths, limitations, how others see him or her and how the leader impacts others?
- Transparency: To what degree does the leader reinforce a level of openness with others that provides them with an opportunity to be forthcoming with their ideas, challenges and opinions?
- Ethical/Moral: To what degree does the leader set a high standard for moral and ethical conduct?
- Balanced Processing: To what degree does the leader solicit sufficient opinions and viewpoints prior to making important decisions? (p. 1)
Since the release of the ALQ, numerous studies were that describe the positive benefits of authentic leadership in a variety of settings. In their original study, Walumbwa, et al. (2008) found that authentic leadership was both significantly and positively related to organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). In a more recent study, Walumbwa, et al., (2010) demonstrated “that authentic leadership was significantly related to rated OCB and employee work engagement. Further, we found these relationships were explained by the degree to which employees identified with their supervisors and the extent to which employees’ felt psychologically empowered” (p. 910).
In addition, Thönissen (2009) noted a significant positive effect on both follower job satisfaction and performance, while Tonkin (2011a) found that self-awareness, transparency, and balanced processing had a positive effect on both OCB and job satisfaction, while morals and ethics and no significant effect on either. The most recent study published by Hannah, Walumbwa, and Fry (2011) assessed the impact of authentic leadership on team productivity, finding that when teams had self-aware team members that behaved with transparency, ethics, and balance, team productivity was enhanced. In addition, the research was the first authentic leadership study to “provide initial empirical evidence of the transference of team leader authenticity to team members’ authenticity” (Hannah, et al., 2011, p. 792), an exciting proposition suggestive of the contagious effect authentic leadership may have on teams.
Authentic leadership may have numerous positive benefits for leaders that improve follower perception of their self-awareness, morals/ethics, transparency, and balanced processing. Potential benefits include improved follower job satisfaction, follower organizational commitment, and follower OCB. In addition, authentic leadership behaviors may improve employee work engagement and team productivity. Furthermore, the benefits may be contagious, as followers’ model norms of authentic leadership behavior. Consequently, authentic leadership offers practical benefits to those seeking to assess and improve authentic leadership behaviors.
The authentic leadership assessment was conducted using the ALQ, a four-dimension, sixteen-question, instrument found to be both reliable and valid (Avolio, et al., 2007; Tonkin, 2011b; F. Walumbwa, et al., 2008). The ALQ uses a five-point Likert scale, rather than the ten-point scale suggested in the assignment. Eighteen respondents received the survey request an e-survey tool. The target respondents included a supervisor, peers, subordinates, and personal associates. To limit potential bias, in this case social desirability (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960), the survey did not require demographic data describing respondent relationships to the author. Therefore, the data does not include relationship information and comparisons are limited to self versus other. Of the 18 (n=18) survey requests, there were 12 (n=12) total respondents.
Table 1 below, provides the summary results:
ALQ Survey Summary Results
Note: Others is the mean of the 12 respondents
The respondents, on average, tended to rate the author higher in each dimension than did the author, likely owing to the author’s knowledge of how the survey was used. The author received highest ratings for the dimension of morals/ethics, while averaging above four for the dimension of transparency. The author averaged the lowest ratings for the dimensions of balanced processing and self-awareness. It is worth noting, that largest difference occurred for the dimension of transparency, with respondents rating the author far higher than did the author.
The low relative ratings for the dimension of balanced processing and self-awareness are suggestive of significant room for improvement. According to Kliuchnikov (2011), “balanced processing implies that authentic leaders are capable of considering multiple sides of the issue at hand and analyzing all relevant information before making a decision” (p. 72). In order to increase the perception of balanced processing in decision-making, the author needs to find ways to assure opposing viewpoints and relevant data are visibly considered.
Of more concern is the low relative rating for self-awareness, a dimension that occupies a central role in authentic leadership theory. Ladkin and Taylor (2010) point out that “that authentic leadership is the expression of the ‘true self’, that the leader must be relatively aware of the nature of that self in order to express it authentically” (p. 5). While Shamir and Eilam (2005) describe authentic leaders as those that possess self-knowledge that provides clarity and guides values and moral conviction. One possible interpretation of the low relative rating for self-awareness is that others perceive a difference between the author’s view of their “true self”, versus their “true self”, giving rise to the notion that others may perceive the author as honestly delusional, a notion supported by Shamir and Eilam (2005) . Another possible interpretation is that the author has low self-monitoring ability; the ability to monitor and adjust behavior based on the situation (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). A final interpretation is that the author may not seek feedback from others often enough. In order to improve self-awareness and the perception of self-awareness, the author needs to find ways to improve their understanding of and connection with their “true self”.
Self-awareness or knowledge of one’s true self is a challenging topic given the plethora of theoretical perspectives that inform the topic (Duval & Silvia, 2002; Klenke, 2007; Ladkin & Taylor, 2010; Ricœur, 1992; Sparrowe, 2005; Toor & Ofori, 2010). Duval, Silvia, and Lalwani (2001) describe a process of self-awareness as the comparison of object self against a standard of correctness when attention focuses on the self, finding that a person can address differences by either changing behavior to align to the standard, removal of attention away from the object self, or changing the standard. Therefore, one potential intervention strategy is to identify the author’s standard of correctness as it pertains to leadership and determine specific differences in behavior. However, the intervention may prove difficult given the lack of tools for self-reflection.
Sparrowe (2005) observes that many authentic leadership perspectives focus on the inward nature of self, suggesting that leaders look inward to identify their true self. He goes on to frame an alternative perspective of self using Ricœur’s (1992) hermeneutic philosophical view; that of self as a narrative identity that provides meaning across the events of life. In Ricœur’s view, others are related to the narrative self in two distinct ways, both as a source of imaginative possibility for the future narrative, and as persons with narratives that are intertwined with our own (Sparrowe, 2005). Therefore, self-awareness requires an understanding of the personal narrative, how the narrative self influences others, and others influence the narrative self.
Sparrowe (2005) recommends a series of interventions for authentic leaders that seek greater self-awareness. Interventions include developing autobiographical works like journals or obituaries, identifying alternative positive variations of future narratives from other leaders through consumption of biographies, and using tools to engage others in helping identify a future narrative; such as the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship’s Reflective Best Self Exercise (Sparrowe, 2005). Moreover, Shamir and Eilam (2005) make a similar recommendation for increasing self-awareness, suggesting that interventions include both reflected best self exercises and reflexive process that identify the positive jolts experienced by leaders in order to construct a leader’s life-story, or in Ricœur’s parlance, the leader’s narrative self. Roche (2010) also supports the argument for the efficacy of reflective experience to gain practical wisdom based on the findings of from a recent quasi-experimental study. Likewise, Kouzes and Posner (2007) describe the creation of a personal tribute as a method to clarify values, in similar fashion to the obituary described by Sparrowe (2005).
Thus, there appears to be significant congruence between authentic leadership scholars that increased self-awareness requires experiential processes to develop a leader’s personal leadership story. The recommended approach to developing this author’s leadership story will include active journaling, the development of a personal tribute, and investment in the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship’s Reflective Best Self Exercise. During the process of developing the leadership narrative, this author will seek to identify an aspirational standard for leadership correctness with which to target as a future, imaginative leadership possibility.
The authentic leadership assessment helped this author identify specific recommendations to improve follower perception of balanced processing and self-awareness. In fact, the assessment process was the beginning of the author’s authentic leadership journey. The global, complex, interrelated problems of the 21st century require authentic leaders that seek ethical, balanced, and fair solutions to achieve the greatest possible good. It is likely that the process of constructing the author’s leadership narrative is the first step towards identifying the type of leadership challenge that aligns with the author’s true self. The authentic leadership assessment helped the author identify opportunities to improve self-awareness, but also is helping to shape a best possible future self.
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