John Jackson looks at a new approach to leadership that puts the emphasis on integrity

In May 2007 former US president Bill Clinton told the BBC news that, in his opinion, Gordon Brown would prove to be a ‘brilliant and authentic’ leader. Later in the piece, a voiceover by the BBC’s political correspondent, Nick Robinson, suggested ironically that after the famous ‘spin’ of the Blair years, the trouble facing Mr Brown might be that by comparison with what had gone before he would be seen to be ‘all substance’. These comments and observations resonated with me not because of their political content but rather as the first very public references that I had come across to a recent and developing academic notion, that of ‘authentic leadership’ which is slowly infiltrating this whole area of thinking.

I read recently that if you type the word leadership into an internet Amazon book search you are rewarded with a list of no less than 22,000 potential purchases. Few of these as yet will make mention of the term ‘authentic leadership’ in their title but a notable exception to this is Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, which is to be recommended as a very clear and readable introduction to the subject.

So how does authentic leadership differ from all the other kinds and approaches with which we have been literally bombarded in recent years? What are the distinguishing features of this new way and what can it bring to the debate about educational leadership that all these publications, not to mention, professional qualifications training courses, national colleges and development days have not done already? Historically a great deal of leadership development and training has centred on attempts to identify, categorise or emulate the psychological traits and characteristics of proven leaders to establish some kind of easily understandable leadership profile. In this way effective leadership has been quantified or explained as the province of certain types of individuals blessed with an abundance of these qualities. A second, widely used, approach has attempted to identify and record a set of observable behaviours which together can be regarded as constituting good practice and which will therefore provide a ready, reliable and successful model for the aspirant leader. These approaches posit a rather static, abstract, bloodless and functionalist idea of leadership as something which can be learned, internalised and then done to others who will duly recognise its force and readily comply. Much has been written also about styles of leadership and the necessity for every individual not only to recognise their preferred mode of operation but also be able to adopt any other style from the full repertoire depending upon the context or task in hand. Successful leadership thus becomes a kind of managerial mix and match exercise, resting on the ability of the leader to recognise and latch into the appropriate style at the right time and in the right place.

Self knowledge

There is now a new breed of writers who want to overturn these ideas and move their readers to a radical rethink of the subject. For them leadership is not to be trivialised as a mere technique or the adoption of a ready-made formula. Borrowing approaches from others, emulating someone else or becoming what others want you to be must be viewed simply as ‘inauthentic leadership’, based upon false notions of style rather than the solid foundations of integrity and personal substance. Instead of merely checking themselves against lists of de-contextualised characteristics, behaviours or styles, leaders must now rely upon their own personal resources. They must be ready to identify and use their leadership ‘assets’ to deliver ‘authentic self-expression that creates value’. To achieve this they must apply their ‘personal power’ and touch their organisations through ‘personal presence and relationships’. This is truly a new world of leadership populated by individuals relentlessly determined to be who they really are. For the new-style leaders being authentic means to live and act with integrity and to demonstrate visible and consistent congruity between who they are and what they do. This demands that leaders must possess high levels of self-knowledge, to be completely sure of what they stand for, what they know and what they don’t, and recognise what they can do and what they can’t. Most of all they must be able to create a very compelling and consistent narrative about themselves and their goals for the organisation. The once-popular desire on the part of many organisations to appoint ‘charismatic’ leaders is thus held to be hugely mistaken in the new thinking, as these individuals are seen to be egotistically preoccupied with creating ungrounded impressions which are seen to destroy much more value than they create. A well-developed sense of self and identity may not be something that everybody easily recognises in themselves but there are many good and available examples. When Greg Dyke, for instance, who is discussed at length by Goffee and Jones, appeared on Desert Island Discs recently he disclosed that from an early age he did not want to be ‘ordinary’ like everyone else and saw himself as very different from others. It was a combination of this heightened self-knowledge and an unerring sense of purpose that sustained and motivated him through his life and hugely successful career. Professor Bill George of Harvard Business School has created a memorable metaphor for this state of being in his book True North in which the actions of such leaders are seen to be always consistent with their inner ‘compass’. As a consequence they are seen to be highly emotionally intelligent and, as a consequence, able to lead successfully integrated lives, maintaining a healthy equilibrium between the personal and professional.

A particular skill

Most importantly, these individuals have a very particular skill. They are able to recognise and learn what it is about themselves that makes them professionally attractive to their colleagues and employees. It is by using this knowledge to best advantage in the everyday presentation of themselves that they can have the greatest effect on others. This does not mean that they have any intention of hoodwinking or deceiving their colleagues. Rather their motive is to gain maximum benefit from this situation for all concerned. However, while the leader must be open and honest with others this does not imply that he or she indulges in a constant and crass disclosure of everything about him or herself. The effective, authentic leader has a sense of personal distance, unveiling just enough about him or herself in any given situation to be able to reassure or inspire others. Goffee and Jones summarise this very memorably as ‘Be yourself – more – with skill’. It is thus the ability of the leader to create high-quality, purposeful relationships with colleagues, which is of paramount importance as he or she engages skilfully in the ever-changing day-to-day realities of the organisational context. The authentic leader is always aware and observant and has a well-developed ability to sense changing situations. In this way the new thinking seeks to underline that leadership must be viewed robustly as it really is – a dynamic, reciprocal and very human activity, whose success or failure depends upon the artful management of the ongoing and developing relationships that exist between the leader and his or her colleagues. This means that authentic leaders do not require or attempt to create mere followers. Such leaders recognise that within diverse and complex modern organisations people want much more from their employment than just to accept a passive role and tag along. They recognise that what their employees really desire is to be given their own chances to take responsibility and be allowed the opportunity to step up and lead. The authentic leader is therefore an empowering, developmental force, a giver not a taker, willing to cede authority to others. It is incumbent upon the leader not just to delegate to others but to create purpose and direction by displaying and constantly reinforcing a clear mission with purposes and values that others can buy into, enjoy and embody with equal passion. It is through this distribution of responsibility that employees are able not just to complete tasks or passively serve the organisation but also to find real personal meaning and significance in their work. Such colleagues are much more effective and efficient workers, who themselves create real value. They will also always conduct themselves with the wellbeing and future of the organisation set high in their personal and professional priorities. In short, they too will seize the opportunity to build upon and express their authentic selves. While the benefits of authentic leadership can be readily recognised they do not come without some cost. Leadership of any description can often be a very lonely and personally exhausting affair. The authentic leader, by definition, must always be drawing upon his or her personal reserves and must also, therefore, find ways of refreshing and restoring these sources of purpose and energy. Goffee and Jones suggest that here are a number of ways in which this can be done. They believe that leaders who want to be sure that they are being true to themselves need to return to their roots on a regular basis. By so doing they are able to reconfirm their identity either by spending time with life-long friends or exploring some element of their own biography with others who lived through shared experiences. Equally exposure to very new and perhaps different and unusual experiences can test out the true depth of personal beliefs and values. A final way for the authentic leader to recharge his or her batteries is to ask for and gain honest feedback from colleagues, friends and family which can shed new light on the realities of their personal actions.

Achieving a balance

The new ideas provided by the likes of Goffee, Jones and George encourages us to believe that effective leadership is the balanced combination of authentic action and learned skills. Too much emphasis, they say, has been placed upon the development of the latter in traditional management training. It is their belief that the time has come for potential leaders to first become much more in tune with themselves, what they stand for and how well they know the individuals and groups they work with. This may not seem like an easy task. To help in this very difficult quest Goffee and Jones deliberately finish their book with an appendix containing a set of seven largely open-ended questions which they believe everyone who is interested in leading should pose for themselves as the first step in this developmental process.

They are very searching indeed and provide real pause for thought for anyone hoping to achieve the status of a truly authentic leader.