“Authentic Leadership should be an expectation of practice . . . It makes sense that a good leader would be genuine, trustworthy, and consistent, and so it should be something that we would expect from any good leader.”
Dr. Jeffrey S. McMaster
“Authentic Leadership should be an expectation of practice . . . It makes sense that a good leader would be genuine, trustworthy, and consistent, and so it should be something that we would expect from any good leader.”
Dr. Jeffrey S. McMaster
I have worked with teenagers for years, and I believe one of their defining characteristics is a common dislike for hypocrisy. That is not to say that they don’t also demonstrate hypocrisy and wear masks themselves, but as a whole, they don’t like adults who say one thing and do another. They use the term “hypocrite” to describe this behavior, but there are other words that also apply: credible, genuine, real, or authentic. This belief or feeling, though, is not just true for teenagers; everyone dislikes hypocrisy and wants to see authenticity. This is a foundational principle that emerged in Kouzes & Posner’s leadership research, published in The Leadership Challenge, revealing that “more than anything, people want leaders who are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership” (p. 32). This led to their statement of “The First Law of Leadership: if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message” (p. 33).
According to Peter Northouse, in Leadership: Theory and Practice, authentic leadership is leadership that is transparent, morally grounded, and responsive to people’s needs and values (p. 282), and is developmental (a life-long process), intrapersonal (within), and interpersonal (relationship). In other words, authenticity is all about being genuine, real, and trustworthy, both with yourself and with others, and about showing genuine care for the best interest of others. Being authentic means being genuine, consistently matching your walk with your talk, and it is absolutely critical to effective leadership.
The most important component of authenticity is honesty. It is honesty that makes someone believable and trustworthy, because it becomes the visible evidence of integrity. According to Kouzes and Posner: “Regardless of what leaders say about their own integrity, people wait to be shown; they observe the behavior. Consistency between word and deed is how people judge someone to be honest” (p. 28). You know this to be true. You can think of examples in your own experience of people who were dishonest and lacked integrity, and you know what you thought about those people and how it affected your level of trust. I don’t think anyone would question the significance of honesty. I think we also know that the “proof is in the pudding” – we decide someone’s honesty based on the actions that we see.
So then, besides the characteristic of honesty, what does authenticity look like? First, you must understand that what it does not look like is imitation. To be authentic, you must be you, not someone else, and sometimes that is much more difficult than we realize. It’s fairly easy for us to try to take on attributes and characteristics of people we look up to, and it’s also appealing to try to imitate others who we want to be like. But the truth is, “no one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else” (George, et. al., Discovering your authentic leadership, p. 163). It’s true that there are some things that we do because we have been exposed to an influential person in our lives; for example, I can point out a number of my own behaviors that reflect my father’s influence, and I can describe important ways in which my wife has shaped who I am. However, being affected by their influence does not mean that I am being them. Rather, everything I have learned has had to be applied in a way that matches my own personality and characteristics. I still have to be me.
Second, authenticity means that people can trust you to “DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do. DWYSYWD has two essential elements: say and do. To be credible in action, leaders must be clear about their beliefs; they must know what they stand for. That’s the “say” part. Then they must put what they say into practice: they must act on their beliefs and “do” (Kouzes and Posner, p. 38). This characteristic will most clearly be revealed when the pressure is on and the challenge is great. Without question, “the values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you will not know what your true values are until they are tested under pressure” (George, et. al., pp. 169-170). When the heat is turned up, the fire will usually reveal your true colors, and that’s when people can see if your authenticity is real.
The conclusion, then, is that a leader must be authentic in order to be effective. People must be able to tell that you are genuine, that you are who you say you are because you do what you say you will do. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched by your people, your family, your customers, and your community, so that they can determine if you are believable and therefore trustworthy. And if they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you. That’s why I believe that authenticity needs to be at the top of the list for every leader.
George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., and Mayer, D., “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.
Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd Ed.). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Ed.). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.
I vividly remember one particular day in my 8th grade math class. I don’t remember what concept the teacher was teaching, and I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember the specific experience. The teacher was reviewing concepts from the previous night’s assignment, and called me up to the chalkboard to work out one of the problems. The next few moments were terrifying for me. I was so scared to stand in front of my classmates and demonstrate a math concept that my hands began to visibly shake as I walked to the front of the room, and then . . . I don’t remember anything else until I sat back down. What happened in between standing up and sitting down was and is a complete blank. I knew at that moment that I could never do something that would require me to be in front of people.
So, there is great irony (and providence) in the fact that my career has required extensive interaction with and in front of people. I would never have imagined that I would have had the opportunity and experience of leading organizations, speaking in front of people, and developing other leaders. When I think about this, I can see that there are several important factors that played a role in my development, but one of those was simply the opportunity to try. My church asked me to teach a class, an administrator gave me some responsibilities, a student group asked me to speak at an event, and a variety of other opportunities were provided that helped me to grow as a leader and helped me to develop skills.
You see, leadership development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It involves both knowledge and practice, both learning and doing. You learn a lot by studying, by having someone teach you, but you also learn a lot by doing. Therefore, a critical component of leadership development takes place when people are given the opportunity to try by getting the chance to do. That’s why John Kotter, when he speaks about creating a culture of leadership, says that “people who provide effective leadership in important jobs always have a chance, before they get into those jobs, to grow beyond the narrow base that characterized most managerial careers. . . . The breadth of knowledge developed in this way seems to be helpful in all aspects of leadership” (What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 53). This is why you need to take opportunities that are presented to you, even if it is a little outside of your comfort zone. You need to be willing to overcome your fears and stretch yourself, knowing that you won’t do everything well and you’ll make mistakes, but you will learn and improve.
While this is true for you, it’s also true for those you are leading. George, Sims, McLean, and Mayer, in a article discussing Authentic Leadership, explain that “authentic leaders . . . know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leader at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead” (Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 176). You will be a much better leader if you intentionally look for opportunities for those you lead, opportunities for them to step up and take some leadership, to stretch themselves, and to grow their abilities. Perhaps it involves leading a project or a task; maybe it’s leading a discussion or study or meeting; it could be taking the lead on learning a new concept to share with others. It can be a variety of ways, but regardless of what path you use, be purposeful about providing growth experiences.
The simple truth is that growth and development takes place when you have the opportunity to try. Therefore it makes sense that you must be intentional about taking those opportunities, and it also makes sense that – if you want to be a leader who develops others and you want an organization with a culture of leadership development – you become intentional about giving others those opportunities. Take advantage of experiences that will help you grow, and give your followers a chance to try.
When I was in college, I remember hearing a motivational speaker by the name of Charlie “Tremendous” Jones give a message in one of the chapel services. The only thing I can still recall from what he said was the statement that “in 20 years, you will be the same person you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” I am not sure how much we actually change over time, but I am certain that we do change, and I do believe that one of the factors that changes us is the influence of other people. Even in the world of education, where I have spent so much of my time, I have often seen an individual’s behavior drastically change when that individual is placed in some kind of group dynamic (in other words, it seems like children will change their behavior and become like someone else when they get around their friends, either for better or for worse).
Transformational leadership capitalizes on that concept. It can be defined as “the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower” (Northouse, 2013, p. 186). Transformational leaders are people who are recognized as “change agents who are good role models, who can create and articulate a clear vision for an organization, who empower followers to meet higher standards, who act in ways that make others want to trust them, and who give meaning to organizational life” (p. 214) That description represents the four factors that characterize transformational leadership (the “4 I’s”):
This approach to leadership focuses on the idea that leaders need to build relationship and connection with followers in order to understand their needs and motives, and then respond or adapt in a way that best meets those needs and appeals to those motives. In the process, both the leader and the followers are changed, or transformed, in positive ways as a result of the genuine relationship that is occurring, and the end result is usually performance by the followers that exceeds expectations. The leader has established trust and provided influence and motivation that results in the desire to please and support, and motivates people to excel for their own benefit and for yours. As Northouse says, “Transformational leadership moves followers to accomplish more than what is usually expected of them” (p. 194). Unlike transactional leadership, in which people follow in exchange for personal benefit (I give you rewards, recognition, or power, and in exchange you follow me), transformational leadership moves people to follow because you, as the leader, make them better, and make them want to be better.
It seems to me that transformational leadership is strongly connected to authentic leadership and to servant leadership. In essence, when a leader is genuine and puts the needs of others first, that leader will reflect the character, influence, and consideration that changes people. I can think of leaders in my own life like that, people who have made me a better person and who have had a transformative influence on me, as I am sure you can as well. That is the type of leader I want to be. I want to be an example that others emulate, I want people to want to follow me, and I want them to feel valued and to be the best they can be. To do that requires the application of transformational leadership principles, so I believe that it is wise for the effective leader to understand, develop, and implement these ideas. Be an example of integrity, understand and encourage your people, and build them up by empowering and challenging them, and giving them the environment and opportunity to respond. Be transformational in your leadership.
Before you can teach and lead others, you have to live it. In order to live it, you have to know it. I experienced this (or better put, failed at this) in my first experience as the top leader in an organization. To be honest, as I walked in the door I was questioning my own preparedness, unsure of whether I knew enough to be able to lead well. But I had been given the opportunity, so I quelled my fears and jumped.
I arrived at a place that had longstanding, competent employees, and my relative youth probably didn’t help. In my enthusiasm, I started to run without first taking the time to learn. I began making changes (some of them drastic) and implementing new policies and procedures, but failed to take the time to study the history, culture, and people involved. As a result, my actions stemmed from ignorance rather than knowledge, and the result was conflict and disruption. It wasn’t until I took the time to learn that my actions of leadership could represent the right knowledge and therefore win followers and become effective.
But for Christian leaders, this truth goes much deeper: to be effective in your actions of leadership, you must first and foremost have a personal and in-depth knowledge of God and His Word. Your knowledge of His truth is more important than anything else in your preparation. Ezra, as a leader, provides a great example of this. In the description of his preparation for leadership – and more pointedly, his preparation for a specific task – Ezra 7:10 states, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Clearly he had prepared himself for what he was about to undertake, but notice the order of the steps, because the order is important! The first step in the process was “to seek the law of the Lord,” which led him to living out what he knew, and in turn enabled him to teach and to lead. People followed him because his life gave him the credibility to lead, but first having the knowledge gave him the capability to lead.
What does it mean, then, that he had sought the law of the Lord? It means that he had spent time with God. He had studied the Scriptures intensely and diligently, learning who God is and what He says. And that took time and intentional practice. At the core, this is a basic and fundamental part of the Christian walk, and so it shows up nearly everywhere that someone talks about steps of growth. Gordon MacDonald, in Ordering Your Private World, discusses the importance of first having the private world of the inner man in order, and says that this must come from developing intimacy with God through regular time with Him and in His Word. Tim Challies, in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, explains that the ability to discern is directly related to knowledge of God and of His Word. J. P. Moreland, in Love Your God with All Your Mind, communicates that faith is also an act of reason, based on truth – specifically the truth of Scripture – and therefore Scripture must be studied for faith to grow. Kevin DeYoung, in Taking God at His Word, explores the doctrine of Scripture, and in the process argues for the importance and necessity of reading and studying the Bible. And the list could go on and on. The clear understanding is that every Christian (not just leaders) needs to regularly spend time with God, studying Scripture and building that personal relationship.
Scripture itself supports this truth, as is seen in the examples of men and women of God (like Ezra), but as is also specifically stated. Psalm 1 describes the person who will be blessed because of his moral choices, and states in verse 2 that this is someone “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” In the book of Joshua, chapter 1,verse 8, as Joshua is preparing to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God challenges and encourages him with this statement: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” The bottom line is, our thought processes, choices, and outcomes are directly impacted by our time spent in the Word of God.
As a crucial byproduct of studying Scripture, Ezra developed an intimate, personal relationship with God. Because of that personal and deep relationship, he didn’t simply learn to know who God was and is; he also came to understand God’s nature and heart. He had developed a relationship that enabled him to trust in God even in uncertainty and difficulty. It was from this relationship that he was therefore able to move and act with confidence in God’s sovereign plan, and that he was able to see God’s hand and His purpose in the events that occurred.
This is a critical lesson for you and me. Leaders must be learners; but Christian leaders must also be learners of God’s Word. Therefore, in our leadership development, we absolutely must study Scripture, growing in intimacy with God. We need regular time with God, in prayer and in His Word. This must be central and foundational to what we do, how we live, and to our call or purpose from Him. Doing this first is what makes us knowledgeable and gives us the capability to lead, because we will learn to see people and circumstances from God’s perspective, shaping how we think and act. It is from this growth of knowledge and relationship with God that we are able to “walk the talk,” modeling and practicing what we know, and living authentic, genuine lives that inspire trust and result in effective leadership.
When I was in elementary school (I think it was the fourth grade), I had an experience that opened my eyes to the importance of integrity. If you would have asked me at that age what the word “integrity” means, I’m sure I would have had no idea, but this event helped me to realize the concept, even if I didn’t understand the vocabulary. Although I don’t recall all the details, it became one of those defining moments of childhood that was seared into my memory.
Another child in my grade (he was not even someone who was part of my close group of friends) got in trouble for something and was sent to the principal’s office. I don’t remember what he was accused of doing, but I do remember getting called to the principal’s office shortly after he was. I was terrified, assuming that I must have done something wrong, but I had no idea what I might have done. When I got to the office, I was escorted in, where I saw the other student sitting in a chair. When he saw me, he turned and looked at the principal and said, “Please ask Jeff, he doesn’t lie, he always tells the truth!”
As it turns out, he had been accused of something that he had not done, and although I was simply another classmate, he chose to put his life in my hands, so to speak, because he trusted my integrity. And the principal trusted me too! It seems that, as an elementary student, I had developed a reputation of honesty among my peers and my teachers. In my heart, I knew – even at that age – that I could lie as well as anyone and that I often made bad choices, but it was also a revelation to me that my choices of honesty at school had impacted how others viewed me and trusted me. I played that event over in my mind many times during the next months, amazed at the realization of how important it was to have integrity.
But some heads are harder than others (mine in particular), and sin nature still gets in the way, so this was not a “one and done” lesson for me. A couple of years later, I was in a convenience store with some friends, and took a candy bar from the shelf and put it in my pocket. I did not have any money to pay for it, but I really wanted it and I was certain no one saw me. We left the store and walked across the road to the church where my father was the pastor, and when we walked inside, my dad called me into his office. He asked me if I had anything to tell him, and I said no. He had me empty my pockets, and when he saw the candy bar, I told him I had bought it at the store. What I didn’t know was that the store clerk, who knew my dad, had seen me take the candy bar and had called my dad. I was caught and didn’t know it, and I lied. I remember flashing back in my memory to my fourth grade experience of honesty, and realizing that it’s pretty easy to lie, but that integrity takes work, and I had failed the test of integrity.
The Bible has a lot to say about integrity. Sometimes it’s called honesty, sometimes uprightness, sometimes blamelessness, sometimes righteousness. There are numerous verses in Proverbs that speak to it directly, there are many illustrations of it (both positive and negative) lived out in the lives of Bible characters. Jesus Himself is the personification of it (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”). Therefore I don’t think anyone would dispute that it is a necessary character trait for any Christian. I do think, though, that it may help us to see a picture of what it actually is.
Several months ago, I was visiting the church where I had grown up, and attending a small group class that my dad was teaching. He happened to be teaching on integrity. His outline listed a number of verses, among them the following:
As he was teaching, I started searching online on my phone for the specific meanings of the Hebrew words in those verses, and I discovered something that I found to be very interesting. It seemed that all of the words in those verses that were related to integrity appeared to come from variations on one of two different Hebrew root words: yashar and tamam. I looked up the meanings of those two words and learned that yashar means straight, even, level, correct, or upright, and that tamam means complete, whole, entire, or completeness. In combination, they give the idea of something that is completely and totally true and upright, not warped, and without falsehood.
So think about those meanings: straight and level, whole and complete. That sounds like a good description of integrity. The opposite would be crooked and uneven or wobbly, fractured and incomplete. Then think about those ideas in the context of integrity: not telling the whole story, giving a half-truth, intentionally misleading, using or providing faulty information, sending someone down a wrong path – these are all things that reflect a lack of integrity. And they are all things that don’t belong in the character of a godly leader. This is the crux of ethics in leadership – maintaining integrity in all circumstances. It’s difficult, especially in high-pressure environments, but necessary as a representative of Jesus Christ. You have a responsibility and an opportunity to model integrity, and in so doing you will become a trusted leader that others are willing to follow. As a Christian leader, you don’t have a choice: live with integrity.