LEADERSHIP : The truth will out – Why inauthentic leadership doesn’t work

Creativity, innovation, risk-taking, openness and connection to the aspirations of the organisation they work for are just some of the feelings absent in workers who toil under less-than-ideal leadership.
And the majority of workers in recent New Zealand survey are operating under precisely these conditions – something which is certainly holding not only the workforce, but the whole country back – according to the authors of More ‘Right’ than ‘Real’: The Shape of Authentic Leadership in New Zealand.
It all comes down to the concept of ‘authentic leadership’; leadership where leaders have high ethical and moral character, self-awareness, are balanced in the way they make judgements and are transparent. (On the flip side, inauthenticity is marked by the tendency to hide not only from yourself as leader, but from others – hiding your true thoughts and opinions in favour of espousing what you believe others want to hear.)
Following on from authentic leadership is ‘psychological capital’ as concept, which refers to set of positive psychological capacities (confidence, hope, optimism and resilience) and is intended as differentiator from the more common ‘human capital’ measure. Psychological capital can be used to predict work outcomes – with high level likely to result in higher productivity and gains to the organisation’s bottom line.
Work by Lester Levy and Mark Bentley from Auckland University’s Excelerator leadership centre shows that, following study of 1000 workers, on average just 37 percent rated their workplace leaders as authentic most of the time.
The study surveyed the perceptions and experiences of the workforce in New Zealand organisations to determine the levels of authentic leadership, the levels of psychological capital, the leadership impact on the workforce and the relationship between them.
Why is authentic leadership important? Because workers who rate their leaders as authentic, themselves have higher levels of psychological capital (which is good for workplace outcomes).
This link is one reason Levy is disappointed in New Zealand’s level of authentic leadership.
“We need to develop it more to take advantage of the accompanying boost in psychological capital to ensure higher and better outcomes for New Zealand.”
Levy explains the choice of subject – ie, the workforce as opposed to the leaders – by asking why humans study the moon. Are we that interested in the moon itself? No, but what does intrigue us is the moon’s effect on the earth (in the form of tides and rotation).
“So why should we look at the followers in this study? Because we’re constantly looking at leaders to try and work out leadership, but I think we need to look at the followers as really important dynamic in the whole relationship. So we’ve gone, euphemistically, into the minds of the country’s workforce and this is what they’re saying.”
Levy says the results are fascinating and show work is needed on New Zealand leadership – but he notes that authentic leadership is not the Holy Grail.
“Leadership is like highway under construction, always something new being developed. The reality of leadership is that there is no simple formula. There’s no way of saying ‘this is the way to do it’. In the end everybody needs to theorise their own personal leadership.”
That said, the authors clearly express disappointment with the headline result: “We feel that figure suggesting that more than 60 percent of our leadership is not yet at acceptable levels of authenticity is disappointing.”
They suggest New Zealand leaders are more concerned with the need to be right, than their ability to be real – and while they have strong ethical and moral standard are unwilling to admit mistakes or consider the perspective of others.
They’re saying, strongly, that they don’t have regard for the quality of their leaders in the workplace. In crude terms, only four out of 10 managers/leaders would be rated as authentic.
“Which leaves six out of 10 that aren’t and that’s of real concern.”
The implications are dire for our productivity and competitiveness on the global stage.
We say, those people who rank their leaders in the top quartile of authentic leadership (AL), what was their psychological capital? And it was much higher than the next group. The link has been proved before between AL and psychological capital.
“If you’re an AL, the people around you are going to be more optimistic.
“Then we did something new and we looked at the leadership impact.”
Inauthentic leaders are more likely to hollow out the capacity of their followers. The research has further to go – but the thesis being presented now says “if you are an authentic leader, the people around you are likely to be more optimistic, positive, confident and have higher hope” all of which is related to much higher workplace performance, productivity and profitability.
Analysed across age groups, there were no significant differences in responses, but gender differences did stand out. Female respondents rated their leaders as slightly more authentic – similar to trend observed in similar study in the United States.
“A lot of generational differences are over-hyped generally. The gender differences we found are not that statistically significant but are something to think about and we’re going to have deeper look at that.”
Levy is interested in the whole area of women in leadership, saying women have much deeper, more genuine sense of community – which is what is encouraged in leadership.
“I think lot of women who are appointed to leadership roles are tuned in to acting like men. This is personal comment but I don’t think we’ve yet seen the best of women leadership,” he says, adding that, in time, he believes women will stick to being truer to who they are as leaders and not try to be like the men who often appointed them.
“I think women ‘do’ leadership differently due to their more inclusive, less combative style. And we know from lot of research that that’s the way to go.”
Smaller businesses rate their leaders more highly – probably due to the fact that they work more closely together.

What does it all mean?
How important is being ethical? New Zealand is constantly rated very highly as non-corrupt country… but Levy thinks the average has fallen.
“Maybe we can be at the top but maybe the average is slowing because if you have look at lot of recent issues in New Zealand then it’s not such clean country. And there are also things that we probably don’t even know. So we shouldn’t be complacent,” he says.
“Leadership will always be theory, way of thinking about things, it’s not the final solution,” Levy says. “I think it’s important for people to see things like authentic leadership as ‘this is where we are at the moment’. New theories will emerge but these things help us in our own thinking about leadership.”
Previously leadership was about lifting performance, motivation and those types of things – and whether leadership existed for good or evil was left up to society. Authentic leadership is making real statement that leadership is there for good, for moral purpose.
Take Google for example, its mission statement is about ‘do no evil’, which is very interesting.
In the top quartile, people are focused on how to do things better – in the bottom on why their leader is nitpicker or similarly irritating.
“If we’re going to be more productive, more creative, more innovative, lot of that is about who we are as leaders. And there’s lot there that we can change.”
We need to be more self-aware, we need to be more honest with ourselves. The likelihood is if you give me positive feedback about myself then I’ll take it, if you give me negative feedback I’ll ignore it.”
Levy says one of the most common questions from the MBA students he teaches is about how much truth is the truth? How honest do you have to be to be honest? What denials are permissible, how much disclosure is really necessary? There’s

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