Authentic leadership

Browsing the bookshop at Schiphol airport I picked up the Harvard Business School handbook on leadership which is supposed to contain the ten must-read articles of the last couple of decades. In the book you can find the usual taken for granted tropes and separations: that there is a difference between leadership and management, that managers are of course needed as well, it’s just that they don’t have what George Bush senior referred to as the ‘the vision thang’, that today’s speeded up world demands more leadership not less, and that if not all leaders need to be or can be transformational, they do at least need to be authentic.


One explanation for the move to authenticity is, as the particular chapter revealed, that there have been thousands of scholarly studies produced about leadership without our being any the wiser about how we might become good leaders ourselves. There is no recipe: ‘what a relief!’ (states the chapter). The answer, then, is to be our authentic leaderly selves. This involves being self aware and conscious of our story, being clear about our passions, responding constructively to feedback and learning how to empower others. All of this is brought about by the power of self-scrutiny. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps by scrutinising ourselves intensively and realising our own shortcomings.There can be no surprise about the individualised nature of this kind of thinking and its self-referential nature. Other people are bit-part players in the process, although one of the ‘world renowned leaders’ the authors interviewed was prepared to listen constructively to feedback from his second wife. His second wife, note.

There is a good deal of good contemporary critical literature calling into question this solipsistic rendering of authenticity. One such author is Michael Crawford whose most recent book The World Beyond Your Head: how to flourish in an age of distraction (British title) encourages us to move beyond what he sees as the radical subjectivism. In other words, if we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals separated from everyone else and from the world then we can only be our own referent. It leaves us cut loose from the world in which we operate and the people who matter to us, as though we can be our own best guide. He argues instead that our inner experience does not come to us pre-given but is only made intelligible to us within a prior shared world of meaning.

Unfortunately we live in a society which champions a radical form of individualism based on a distorted notion of ‘choice’ which sets about dismantling opportunities for these same shared worlds of meaning. In my opinion there are good examples in the UK in the assault on the BBC, the potential privatisation of the NHS, the closing of libraries, any number of instances where goods held in common are deemed to work against sovereign autonomy. In modern society a premium is placed on atomism, where we are all supposed to work out for ourselves what to do and who to be. This can lead to fragmentation of the public world, but also fragmentation of the self: this year’s speaker at the Complexity and Management Conference Svend Brinkmann has as his current research project the proliferation of depression in Denmark, which he sees as directly linked to the prevalence of atomism and instrumentalism that pervades contemporary society. We are encouraged to fall back on ourselves and our own abilities to make our way in a complex world.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor encourages a reappraisal of the idea of authenticity[1]. The initial moral motivation in favour of authenticity was based on the idea that of free expression to overcome the arbitrary authority of medieval societal structures of both religion and state. The imperative to express ourselves was also a demonstration of independence and a bid for fulfilment starting with Augustine, who, according to Taylor, argued that the road to God passed through a reflexive awareness of ourselves. There is a moral imperative for each of us, argues Taylor, to express our own humanity in our own way.

However, he goes on to point out that the human mind is dialogical not monological, and that I discover who I am in dialogue with significant others. Identity is not internally generated, but is similarly negotiated with others. In parallel with Crawford’s argument set out in the paragraphs above, Taylor maintains that the quest for authenticity demands a shared horizon of significance; in other words, it takes place against a background of things of value that we hold in common with others. It is on this basis that shared action becomes possible rather than each of us being thrown back on ourselves and our own resources in order to overcome the pressures and demands of contemporary society. Authenticity in these terms is also the quest to realise myself in the company of others so that they too might realise themselves, my fate being intertwined with theirs.

Thinking again about leadership then, perhaps leaders should spend less time in isolation contemplating their own inner authenticity and should get out more. They might find themselves engaged full-on in the hurly-burly of every day organisational life having to listen, negotiate, and persuade, and they might in turn be persuaded. They might more fully realise themselves in the company of others so that they too may realise themselves.

[1] Taylor, C. (1991) The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.


3 thoughts on “Authentic leadership

  1. paradigmrisk


    As ever, this is an interesting and provoking column. But I am a bit confused by the digression into the ‘public good’ aspects of your thinking – the BBC, NHS and libraries. The BBC is not a public good in Samuelson sense, any more than is the majority of the NHS (public health elements excepted). Libraries are the very definition of a merit good (in the original Musgrave definition) held in public hands; they are clearly NOT public goods.

    I am unclear how acknowledging this and responding to it represents a “radical form of individualism.” Let’s leave libraries out of it for the moment – well, totally. The BBC as it currently exists is a corporate behemoth that has grown without fundamental economic rationale; certainly any original rationale has been overtaken by technological change to which the BBC has no incentive to adjust and every incentive to resist – in the form of a ring-fenced poll tax: the ‘licence fee’. Recognising this is economic reality, not a radical form of individualism.

    The NHS was imagined by a neo-Socialist as a response both to the social privations of the 1930s and the realities of needing to deal with injured soldiers returning from WWII. It is not a single entity; it is around 130 major trusts and a proliferation of smaller ones. It has a centralised procurement function (a government monopsony) with complex associations with the trusts. Ownership of provision (“potential privatisation”) is something of a red herring economically as the impact of PFI schemes on trusts’ cash-flows now demonstrates. While health is, undeniably, a merit good (and has public good aspects in relation to public health elements), that does not dictate the means of provision. Musgrave’s was a point about consumption and funding; provision, as he acknowledged, was and is a separate issue. To suggest it does is a statement of political opinion, NOT objective neutrality.

    In what is an important discussion – about leadership – it is important also to be clear. Throwing in politically-loaded preferences about public ownership of assets and brands does not promote clarity. Nor does it show intellectual leadership!

    Your point about the social nature of meaning is an important one. Your digression in to political can’t detracts from it.


  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Peter,
    thanks for taking the time to read this and for your helpful comments on what constitutes a public good.

    You’re probably right – my definitions are sloppy.

    However, that section of the post you refer to is quite clearly prefaced by the words ‘in my opinion…’ and on my own blog I make no apology for having opinions. On Reflexivepractice I have no intention, nor aspiration to be ‘objectively neutral’.

    It seems to me that your comment reveals your own political perspective when you write ‘The BBC as it currently exists is a corporate behemoth that has grown without fundamental economic rationale;’ I would argue that you too are hardly ‘objectively neutral”, although I would have to say, I don’t mind and I don’t expect you to be. The economic rationale is just one or the rationales one might have for growing the BBC. Equally I cannot concur with your insistence that economic ownership of the NHS (and I agree its pretty confused at the moment) is a neutral factor in the kinds of services and voice that citizens get. It is not a red herring and it does make a difference: to claim otherwise is to accept the economic (and political) orthodoxy which currently prevails. Our relationships with each other are also fashioned by the means that public services are funded and the way they are delivered, and there are plenty of scholarly voices who would agree with me (more or less).

    I’m not sure we can ever be clear. Best to engage with each other on things which matter to us.


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