Authentic Leadership: From Theory to Practice

By Mostafa Sayyadi

Executives are under a tremendous amount of pressure in today’s global economy. This article is set in place to inspire leaders to authentically lead their companies to meet and exceed the challenges of not only today but also what we see as an onset of new technological advances in the future.


Why Leadership Studies Have Failed?

Leadership, when assessed from a distance, is somewhat elusive. Four scholars that are well known in the Academy of Management, one of the largest leadership and management organisations in the world by the names of Francis Yammarino, Shelley Dionne, Jae Uk and Fred Dansereau found some mismatches between theoretical concepts of leadership and empirical investigations, and explained that while the theoretical concepts of leadership are extensive, empirical studies could not have sufficiently supported these theoretical concepts.1 In fact, past studies about leadership lacked a multilevel approach, and only focused on downward control. Not accounting for a middle-level leader who takes a two-way approach to influence both superiors and subordinates – more of liaison. Another reason was that there is no determined set of variables used to investigate effective leadership, owing to the diversity of leadership theories and models with different perspectives about effective leadership. A third reason relates to studies about leadership that lack a systematic approach and stem from interdisciplinary approaches. Thus, leadership has remained relatively silent on how to integrate theories, methods, and concepts from diverse disciplinary domains to provide a rich basis for understanding the true leadership theoretical and applicable concepts. 


There is no determined set of variables used to investigate effective leadership, owing to the diversity of leadership theories and models with different perspectives about effective leadership.

There is another reason that leadership studies have failed to disclose the nature of filling the leadership gaps between performance and success. In many instances, there is no direct connection between leadership theoretical models and today’s changing situations. 

Companies in general confront challenging situations in which they need to proactively respond to every environmental demand, a comprehensive leadership model can be a basis for understanding and perhaps anticipating these emerging issues. This idea has been reinforced by two scholars in Texas Tech University by the names of John Blair and James Hunt who state that “the issue here is not basic versus applied research, but research that is or is not relevant to current or projected organisational problems.”2 Leadership theoretical models reflect positivist philosophy, which manifests itself in exploring the current situation rather than investigating the most desired situation for an organisation.

Many executives wonder what academic and leadership writers are trying to explain via models and theories. There really is not much difference except that a theoretical framework has been tried and tested while a model may be an application that leaders can learn and teach others. For instance, various theories and models are presented in an attempt to portray the concept of leadership. However, there have been several shifts in the study of leadership, and subsequently newer approaches to leadership emerged leading up to the emergence of authentic leadership model. While there are many leadership theories and models that leaders can apply, my emphasis will be based upon the authentic leadership theory. This article contributes to practice by identifying the ways in which to develop effective workplaces through authentic leadership.


Leadership is Action, Not Traits

Timothy Judge, Ronald Piccolo and Tomek Kosalka started a wave of research that depicted “the leader trait perspective which they felt is perhaps the most venerable intellectual tradition in leadership research”3 that highly recommends an approach in which “great men and women with certain preferred traits influencing followers to do what the leaders wish in order to achieve group or organisational goals that reflect excellence defined as some kind of higher order effectiveness”.4 David Whetten and Kim Cameron summarize them as being honest, inspirational, competent, and credible.5

Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke identify the following traits: “drive (a broad term which includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative), leadership motivation (the desire to lead but not to seek power as an end in itself), honesty and integrity, self-confidence (which is associated with emotional stability), cognitive ability and knowledge of the business.”6 Burt Nanus suggests several other traits such as initiative, farsightedness, and integrity.7 Accordingly, the leader trait perspective highlights that a leader is significantly different from other employees, and portrays various traits as a leader that followers may not have. Thus, the central idea of the leader trait perspective is that a leader may want to incorporate all or as many of these traits as they possibly can to be successful in today’s hypercompetitive marketplace. This idea of the leader trait perspective being the leadership idea worth acknowledging is one in which all leaders should understand but it lacks some relevance when practiced in the workplace. For instance, Timothy Judge, Ronald Piccolo and Tomek Kosalka explained the paradoxes of this perspective.3 They found that there where, initially, some mismatches between today‘s leadership conditions and those traits which have already been determined for leaders.

In fact, leadership and leaders existed long before the leader trait perspective was initiated as a commonly used behaviour that leaders either possess or should seek to aspire to incorporate into their leadership responsibility. This paradox reconfirms that “traits that were adaptive in ancestral environments might no longer produce adaptive behaviours in modern environments, especially when these environments dramatically differ, as is the case with those of modern humans”.8 The leader trait perspective did enough to provide the necessary evidence that while important, new requirements are continuously required for leadership in global environments today. For example, traits may have different effects on followers depending on the situation, where “a trait which aids one’s ascension to or success as a leader, might in other ways represent threats to one’s success or survival as a leader”.3 The ultimate paradox, however, is that while the leader trait perspective tends to “treat personality variables in an atomistic fashion, suggesting that each trait acted singly to determine leadership effects”.9 In many ways, the leader trait perspective cannot determine if personality traits could not have a linear impact on the outcomes of leadership, and conversely, emphasise the role of other traits as a critical component of this relationship.Traits that perhaps can be exponential existing in one scenario but absent in the other with disregard for success or failure in either situation.

The leader trait perspective, while renowned in nature, has been challenged in terms of successfully developing a limited set of traits for effective leadership. Some scholars conclude that based upon the limitations suggested above, Toni-Carl Fuchs argues that the leader trait perspective could not be applicable at the organisational level or even for global implementation.10 The key is to see the traits, consider implementing them for yourself and your followers and not anticipate a large change in the leadership gaps that exist in the organisation but simply improve individual performance. Executives are, therefore, continuously looking to a set of practices for an effective leadership as a way to manage their workforce better. Executives are taking a serious look at all leadership ideas and suggestions today with the plethora of options available them. Some focus on authentic leadership. In the next section, I present a new facet that executives have embraced – authentic leadership.


The Seven Practices Executives Need To Do To Become Authentic Leaders

Seven practices have been determined for authentic leadership: positive psychological capital, positive moral perspective, self-awareness, leadership process/behaviour management, self-regulation, follower development, and organisational context.11,12

Authentic leaders develop a positive work climate in which followers more effectively contribute to a firm’s performance and competitive advantage.

The first practice refers to the idea that authentic leaders develop a positive work climate in which followers more effectively contribute to a firm’s performance and competitive advantage. The second practice is about the authentic decision-making process, which identifies moral dilemmas, and then evaluates and selects the best available alternative to be implemented. In the third practice, Bruce Avolio and William Gardner have left an array of managerial implications for executives such as the fact that authentic leaders continually understand their own beliefs, strengths, desires, values, and aspirations.11 The fourth practice relates to distinguishing the processes and mechanisms whereby an authentic leader influences his/her followers. Authentic leaders can effectively influence their followers through taking various processes such as positive social exchange. The fifth practice is about self-awareness and self-regulation by which authentic leaders effectively align their core values and individual interests with institutional interests and their practices. In fact, a strong alignment can be achieved in values and goals by using a transparent process between leaders and followers. Then, in the sixth practice, an authentic leader takes a coaching role for transforming and developing people. Also, executives today feel overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge coupled with twenty-four hour access with the internet technology.

Therefore, in the seventh practice, executives follow Bruce Avolio and William Gardner that conclude that authentic leaders develop effective workplaces that promote the depth and range of knowledge access and sharing and provide equal opportunity for all followers at various levels of the organisation in order to actively respond to the constant changes occurring in external environment.11


In Conclusion

This article has several implications for scholars. First, this study adds to a relatively small body of literature and develops our understanding of authentic leadership theory. Second, this article develops a new and dynamic conception of authentic leadership within organisations. I advance the current literature on authentic leadership by offering novel insights into how authentic leaders affect a firm’s performance and competitive advantage. In particular, I argue that authentic leaders create new values through a transparent process. This article also suggests new insights that identify authentic leadership as a primary driver, which influences individual performance. Further, I suggest that a firm’s ability to enhance knowledge management and recognise the changes occurring in external environments and respond to them can be significantly affected by
authentic leadership.

Mostafa Sayyadi, CAHRI, AFAIM, CPMgr, works with senior business leaders to effectively develop innovation in companies, and helps companies – from start-ups to the Fortune 100 – succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders. He is a business book author and a long-time contributor to and Consulting Magazine and his work has been featured in these top-flight business publications.

1. Yammarino, F.J., Dionne, S.D., Uk, C.J., & Dansereau, F. (2005). Leadership and levels of analysis: A state-of-the-science review. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(6), 879-919.
2. Blair, JD & Hunt, JG 1985, A research agenda for leadership on the future battlefield. In Hunt JG & Blair JD (eds.), Leadership on the future battlefield. Pergamon, Brassey’s, Washington, DC.
3. Judge, TA, Piccolo, RF and Kosalka, T 2009 ‘The bright and dark sides of leader traits: A review and theoretical extension of the leader trait paradigm’, The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 6, pp. 855-875.
4. Rost, JC 1991, Leadership for the twenty-first century, Praeger, New York.
5. Western, S 2008, Leadership, Sage Publications, Los Angeles. Whetten, DA & Cameron, KS 1991, Developing management skills, Harper Collins, New York.
6. Kirkpatrick, SA & Locke EA 1991 ‘Leadership: Do traits matter?’ Academy of Management Executive, vol. 5, pp. 48-60.
7. Nanus, B 1989. The leader’s edge: The seven keys to leadership in a turbulent world. Contemporary Books, Chicago.
8. Van Vugt, M, Hogan, R & Kaiser, RB 2008 ‘Leadership, followership, and evolution: Some lessons from the past’, American Psychologist, vol. 63, no. 3, pp. 182-196.
9. Stogdill, RM 1974, Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research, Free Press, New York.
10. Fuchs, T 2007, Situational leadership theory: An analysis within the European cultural environment, Ph.D. Thesis, Capella University.
11. Avolio, BJ & Gardner, WL 2005 ‘Authentic Leadership Development Getting to the Root of Positive Forms of Leadership.’ The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.
12. Ilies, R., Morgeson, F & Nahrgang, J 2005 ‘Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: understanding leader-follower outcomes.’ The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 373-394

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.