Advocates of ‘Authentic Leadership’ argue that there is currently an ethical meltdown in leadership and cite major corporate failures such as Worldcom, Enron, and Arthur Andersen. The recent financial crisis and the current low level of trust in business leaders have inevitably bolstered their cause.   They believe that the decrease in ethical leadership coupled with societal challenges, such as political uncertainty, the threat of terrorism, and environmental concerns, necessitates the need for leadership that is both authentic and positive.  In his book ‘Authentic Leadership’ (2003) Bill George (former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic) has defined authentic leadership as “being yourself; being the person you were created to be” rather than “developing the image or persona of a leader”.  However, ‘being yourself’ is easier said than done and there is currently much confusion and disagreement as to what constitutes being an authentic leader.  This article explores three approaches to becoming an authentic leader: -


Being True to Your Personality

Most advocates of ‘Authentic Leadership’ focus on raising the leaders self awareness.  Frequently in the workplace this self awareness is focused on the leader’s personality.  Through the use of psychometrics such as the 16PF, HPI or OPQ the leader becomes aware of their personality in terms of a profile of their personality traits.  This type of self awareness is a useful step in the development process as it helps a leader to become aware of their habitual ways of thinking feeling and acting.  The leader can use this awareness positively in a way that enables greater choice in their actions and subsequently gain higher levels of agility.  However, all too frequently in their quest for authenticity leaders become slaves to their personality and subsequently become rigid caricature of themselves.   Their hold on their personality has become too tight.  For many leaders this marks the end of their journey of development and they remain at the ‘intermediate’ level.  Leaders who continue their development begin to find that their personality profile does not adequately describe how they think, feel and act across different situations and across the multitude of roles they perform in their lives.


Being True to Your Role

From her research at INSEAD Herminia Ibarra (1999) identified that leaders experiment with ‘provisional selves’ as they form their professional identity.  Social psychologist Michael Kernis (2003) agreed and stated that experimenting with different social roles reflects an extension of one’s’ true self and is a catalyst for self-improvement and growth.  These views are in line with a number of schools of thought in psychology especially ‘Psychosynthesis’ developed by Roberto Assagioli.  The Psychosynthesis view is that we all have a number of sub-personalities which we use at different times to cope with different situations and perform different roles.  Whilst performing a multitude of roles can be very developmental and functional for a leader there often comes a time the leader asks - Who am I?  It is at this time that the leader begins to feel fragmented and starts to realise that their personality in each role has just been constructed as a way of coping with work and life.


Being True to Your Being

Upon realising that their personality is just a construct the leader seeks to find a deeper authenticity within.  Leaders at this point in their development journey often find that they can witness and take ownership of their values, thoughts, emotions, actions, and beliefs.  They ask – Which part of me is doing the witnessing?  This witness consciousness is often described using terms such as True Self or Being.  It is at this point that the leader is able to hold their personality with a light touch and has little need to defend their ego.  Michael Washburn (1994) in his book ‘Transpersonal Psychology in a Psychoanalytic Perspective’ and Franklyn Sills (2009) in his book ‘Being and Becoming’ have described this as a process of coming back to ‘Being’ which is a natural process of psychological maturity.  Abraham Maslow (1962) in his book ‘Toward a Psychology of Being’ has famously described this process as ‘self actualisation’ and is characterised by the leader having: -

  • Clearer, more efficient perception of reality
  • More openness to experience
  • Increased integration, wholeness and unity of the person
  • Increased spontaneity, expressiveness; full functioning; aliveness
  • A real self; a firm identity; autonomy, uniqueness
  • Increased objectivity, detachment, transcendence of self
  • Recovery of creativeness
  • Ability to fuse concreteness and abstractness
  • Democratic character structure
  • Ability to love

It could be argued that business leaders need to ‘self actualise’ in order to gain the agility needed to meet the demands of the high levels of change and complexity in today’s environment.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act I, Scene III)

Terry Sexton 

Leadership Psychologist


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