Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Authentic Leadership: Good for Business and Our Health

It's been said that one of the biggest indicators that a person might be CEO material (experience, education, etc. held equal) is the ability to work a sixteen hour day.

A huge workload, however, is not the only challenge for today's leaders.  As we know, Twenty-first century leaders are dealing with volatile conditions and a level of complexity and competition for resources unheard of at the start of the Twentieth century. 

Followers are also changing in that the US workforce demographics are becoming more diverse than they have ever been in terms of skin color, age, gender and skill sets. The nature of work itself in most corporations requires employees to make a great many discretionary decisions which requires them to be managed in a way that is very different from the Industrial Age Command Control style of leadership (autocratic, top down, hierarchical,  Theory X).  Today's employees, with their in-depth training and high levels of education are knowledge workers.  

The rise of the knowledge worker requires leaders to allow their followers more autonomy, more of a voice in strategy and decision making, and collaborative consideration in terms of performance assessment and rewards. Additionally, leaders must possess multicultural and relational intelligence that is only possible by deepening their awareness of their own leadership identity development (biases, privilege, fears, and assumptions about leadership).  Furthermore, the best leaders have a heart deep clarity about their purpose as a leader and are passionate about getting feedback from their environment to ensure they are on track with what they are trying to achieve. Because they seek feedback, their followers experience them as less threatening and more collaborative which makes the leader's mission catching.  Because they are able to take the feedback in and make changes shows that they are able to learn and flexible enough to change their thinking for their mission.  

All of this is starting to make the 16 hour work day look like the least of the challenge for today's leaders.

When we consider the work of leaders like Attorney Kenneth Feinberg who has responded quickly and competently to the traumatic world events 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings for the greater good, what we are witnessing is authentic leadership. A great historical example is Abraham Lincoln. 

Authentic leaders have a deep foundation in their own personal mission which ignites followers with similar convictions to join them in the stewardship of movements, organizations, countries, and campaigns to help in the aftermath of trauma and war and give service to populations with ongoing support needs like veterans, the poor, and the displaced.

Authentic leaders due to their sincerity about who they are, transparency about their mission, willingness to collaborate in order to serve the greater good above their own egos, inspire their followers and other stakeholders.  Authentic leaders are on the forefront of change.

The journey to reach authenticity is not always straightforward or easy. Research shows that some authentic leaders become so through adversity and hardship they experience, others through the discovery and development of causes and still others through formal learning programs.  The end result is an understanding of their own life story and worldview that fuels their sense of justice as well as their passions and causes. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, chronicles his life story and how it fueled his mission to make all employees partners and offer benefits to part time workers (a revolutionary thing at the time) in Pour Your Heart Into It

The definition of Authentic leadership includes the relationship between the leaders and their followers (Gardner et al., 2005). In fact it’s the followers who reinforce the leader’s authenticity, which is deeply rooted in the leaders self-authorization of their role as a leader. Indeed it has been found that the leadership role and the self are relativity undifferentiated for the authentic leader (Gardner & Avolio, 1998).  Warren Bennis described authentic leadership as a form of self-expression (1992).

Furthermore, authentic leadership is good for business! Here are some highlights from research on the positive impacts of authentic leaders on their followers and organizations:
  1. Authentic leadership is positively related to profit (Rowold & Laukamp (2009)
  2. Followers, of authentic Leaders, experience a relationship that includes social mirroring and attunement and interpersonal synchrony, have lower salivary cortisol levels (the stress response hormone) than those followers who are not connected to their leaders on this subconscious level (Kouzakova, Van Baaren & Van Kippenberg, 2010)
  3. Relationships with authentic leaders are characterized by a phenomenon called resonance which includes the sharing of mutual positive emotions, a subjective sense of being in synchrony with one another, and activation of parasympathetic nervous system responses (e.g. rest, and digest response) (Boyatzix, et al., 2011).
  4. Relationships with non-authentic leaders produce negative emotions, interpersonal discord, and parasympathetic nervous system activation (fight/flight response) (Boyatzix, et al., 2011)
  5. Authenticity between leaders and followers engenders feelings of compassion, hope, a sense of play and mindfulness (Boyatziz & Mckee, 2005)
  6. When leaders and followers are not connected in this way it’s considered dissonance which includes the engendering of malice, micromanaging, betrayal, and insensitivity which create toxic emotions in the workplace that take a toll on employee well being and performance (Frost, 2004)
  7. In a MRI imaging study, researchers found that memories of authentic leaders stimulated the area of the brain in such a way that signaled creative and the ability to think out of the box (Frost, 2004)
  8. Conversely, memories of inauthentic leaders produced a "cognitive narrowing of the person’s attention" which researchers surmised was due to following  a leader who is focused on corrections and errors which limit the contributions followers can make (Frost, 2004)
  9. Studies involving quantitative EEGs have found that leaders who communicate an inclusive vision with an emphasis on social responsibility, altruism, and the empowerment of various stakeholders versus a more narcissistic, self-interested vision, build psychological capital (including the optimization of hope confidence and resilience) in their followers (Boyatziz & Mckee, 2005)

Seriously, who would you rather work for, hire to lead your company or have as a peer?

We share emotions with our partners, therapists, teachers and friends every day. When my daughter smiles at me, no matter how bad my day was, I smile back and feel happy and uplifted.  When my husband is not happy about something I can feel it before he even has to say anything and vice versa. We share emotions in this same way with our leaders too. Who would you rather share emotions with on a work-a-day basis?  A leader who is driven by passion and a clear mission and who is authentic in their approach and honest about who they are or someone who is not this way?

The last part of the research I will share is a definition that delineates the main factors that make up authentic leadership based on a longitudinal study from 2005 to 2008 that analyzed five separate samples of data from China, Kenya and the US:

"Authentic leadership is 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" (Walumbwa, et al, 2008:94).

Authentic leaders are multiculturally intelligent, engender respect, self-actualization and health in their followers by their example and collaborative practices and intuitive understanding about the fact that followers make the leader.

Derek Sivers captures this dynamic very well here: 


  1. This certainly echoes my experience with leaders. Authentic leadership FEELS different, but we often don't take the time to reflect on why. This post puts that experience into words, and the neuroscience behind it is fascinating. Great post!


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