Being an authentic leader

About the author: Stuart Rimmer is the Principal and Chief Executive Officer of Great Yarmouth College and runs Inception Coaching, providing leadership development to individuals, groups and companies. He talks to Education Support Partnership about the importance of authenticity.  

Any discussion around authentic leadership for those of us working in educational leadership should be instantly familiar. The clarity of values within leadership provides an opportunity not only to implicitly inform decision making but to be explicitly celebrated, guiding all leadership activity. This practice must go way beyond the mottos enshrined in Latin gold leaf on an oak school wall or in bold colourful fonts in a college reception. If management is concerned with ‘getting things done’, then values in leadership create a framework of ‘how’ we get things done. 

The modern workplace brings with it challenges of 21st century work. The rise of managerialism, a more-for-less culture, employers and employees adapting to short term, often unstable, contracts, the prevalence of multiple careers existing in sequence or in parallel, and the subsequent demise of the ‘job for life’ (which has a knock on effect on the concept of loyalty). Add to that the mix of Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials who coexist and, at times, resist the traditional hierarchies in the workplace.  

Now, think of the best leader you’ve ever worked for or even witnessed at work. What attributes did they hold?  What is it that made them a great leader? It is likely that regardless of their management styles, they were considered authentic. 

Authentic leadership was described by Luthans in 2003 as “including a positive moral perspective characterised by high ethical standards that guide decision making and behaviours”. Avolio in 2004 said, “authentic leaders fundamentally influence their own end follower’s sense of self awareness of values and moral perspective, which in turn provides a relational base of sustainable, veritable performance”.

So why is it important to be talking about this now? Simply this – traditional models of management theory developed in the 20th century can be and should be considered broken. Traditional economic thinking that led us to the 2008 financial crisis is also broken. Senior managers educated in the business schools of western universities on the prestigious and heralded MBA programmes had perpetuated that way of thinking. They tell tales of the heroic leader; that it is only structure imposed by managerialism which brings results; that efficiency is the most important factor in supporting profit maximisation and enhancing shareholder value. 

This attitude is now pervasive in education. I, of course, exaggerate for effect. Somewhere the underpinning concepts of leadership have been lost or at least temporarily forgotten. The ‘what’ we need to do has not been counter balanced with ‘how’ we should do it. Great companies, schools and colleges know that great results are delivered through great leadership. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a bank, retail giant or a college. And the starting point for great leadership is the ability to be authentic.

Authentic leadership has a distinct set of qualities. These might be a moral perspective, a leader’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence, psychological capital, and the ability to lead by example.

Jim Collins in Good to Great described his “level 5 leadership” as being both “humble and ferocious” – the ability to balance personal humility with a relentless will. Sir Clive Woodward, who led the England rugby team to Rugby World Cup victory in 2003 recognised that to develop ‘teamship’, authenticity was required at all levels of the team. People acting with leadership – of themselves and others – play with a high sense of personal integrity, honesty, emotional intelligence and self-awareness. This leads to amazing results. 

“To thine own self be true” said Polonius in Hamlet. Leaders who are able to drop the artifice of the managerial mask and act authentically, open the door to followership, and encourage teams to grow together. This transition will take time and requires practice proactively by the leader.  It begins with a leader’s self-awareness – understanding their own values, psychological capital, and their own sense of resilience. Acting with clarity, accountability and commitment is a powerful force. Establishing a clear sense of ‘how’ with teams provides a better platform to achieve the ‘what’ much more swiftly. The role of authentic leadership has never been more essential.

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