Faculty Viewpoint: Authentic Leadership

Good for Business and Our Health

May 01, 2016

William James College Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department Chair, Kathryn Stanley.

For businesses, organizations, and political parties looking to influence their employees, buyers, and voters, showing authentic leadership is key to making a real connection. 

Rapport sat down with William James College Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department Chair, Kathryn Stanley, PhD, to discuss the importance of authentic leadership. 

Q: Today’s volatile economic conditions and competition for resources—a world we couldn’t have imagined at the start of the 20th century—have created significant obstacles for today’s leaders. What other challenges are they facing—and how can authentic leadership help? 

A: The US workforce is more diverse now than it ever has been. Today’s leaders must show the kind of cultural competence that comes from a deep awareness of their own biases, privilege, fears, and even assumptions about leadership itself. 

The best leaders possess a deep clarity about their purpose as leaders, and are passionate about seeking out feedback from their environment. This enables their followers to experience them as less threatening or domineering—and more collaborative and supportive. 

The rise of the knowledge worker also demands a different kind of management and leadership style. They make discretionary decisions every day—an evolution that makes the command control, hierarchical style heralded by Fredrick Taylor at the turn of the 20th century inappropriate, and even obsolete. A more authentic approach introduces coaching and support to the workplace dynamic, versus having leaders micromanage how things get done.

Because of their high level of education and specialization, knowledge workers require autonomy and even a voice, in terms of vision, strategy, and decision-making. Their efforts are harder to measure, and thus their performance assessments need to be more collaborative versus quantitative. To make that possible, leaders need to understand what their workers are really bringing to the table, even when their purview is radically different from the leader’s own purview.

This takes authenticity and curiosity—two qualities that could be considered rare in old-school expert style leadership.

Q: Can you give us some examples of authentic leadership today?

A: Attorney Kenneth Feinberg responded so competently and thoughtfully to the World Trade Center attacks in New York, and to the Boston Marathon Bombing; you always knew he was focused on the greater good. 

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, shared how his own life story fueled his mission to make all of his employees partners, and to offer benefits to part-time workers. Though many companies have made this leap since, it was revolutionary at the time.

An historical example is Abraham Lincoln, who focused on bettering the lives of Americans over maintaining his own grasp of power. 

Authentic leaders are clear about their own personal mission which, in turn, ignites followers with similar convictions to join them in their movements, organizations, campaigns, and acts of service. They are sincere, transparent and willing to collaborate. They ask for feedback, and they’re not afraid of being wrong. 

To paraphrase Steve Jobs: “I don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. I hire smart people so they can tell me what to do.” Whatever has been said of Jobs, he was an authentic leader, and true to his vision. Jobs, like many other authentic leaders, was on the forefront of change.

Q: What shapes an authentic leader?

A: There are many possible journeys one can take toward authentic leadership. Personal hardship or adversity can teach powerful lessons, and a deep personal interest in a phenomenon can provide a sense of mission. But the real key seems to be the lens through which they view their own experiences, which often influences their personal passions and causes. 

Q: Why does authentic leadership matter so much in today’s landscape?

A: Authentic leaders make for physically healthier and more effective followers and workforces. They promote positive psychological capacities, and establish a positive ethical climate. 

As a result, their followers experience social mirroring, attunement, and interpersonal synchrony—a state that enables them to do their best work and thrive as human beings. In fact, early studies have shown a positive link between authentic leadership and higher profits, which is a powerful impetus in and of itself. 

All things considered, authentic leadership is good for people, society—and business!