Authentic leadership is the vehicle that drives the trust-loyalty relationship. Birthed from identified characteristics of understanding one’s purpose, having strong values, ability to establish trusting relationships, demonstrate self-discipline, and possess passion for the mission; authentic leadership produces trust and in turn results in greater loyalty from followers (Northouse, 2016). In considering examples of authentic leadership, one cannot help but to consider when authentic leadership would be most visible, seen in its purest form. If being authentic is being true to oneself, then there is no greater a display of authenticity then when everything has been stripped away, revealing one’s core. Throughout the history of time, one such an event has proven itself with 100% consistency to reveal one’s truest self and that is when the call to leadership is sounded from the horn of warfare. In the book Leading with Honor, author Lee Ellis shares his account of his time at the Hanoi Hilton Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Vietnam and how he saw leadership displayed amongst the most dire of circumstances. It is through this witnessing of remarkable leadership during such unimaginable times that authentic leadership is identified and observed in action.
“A sense of purpose fueled by passion is essential for true success”
Faced with an acute realism that every choice made can result in the life of oneself and the lives of those under their authority is beyond sobering. It is during these times that the characteristics of authentic leadership are most needed. Being a successful leader requires knowing one’s purpose. During their time at Hanoi, American soldiers were faced with one primary purpose, staying alive. In spite of tremendous adversity, including “suffered torture and deprivation of the worst kind for six, seven, and even eight years” (Ellis, 2012), the heroes of POW camp Hanoi, continued to lead with courage. This type of dedication can only be maintained from an unshakable sense of purpose. “A sense of purpose fueled by passion is essential for true success. It’s fine to set your sights on any number of worthwhile goals, such as attaining a certain position of influence or making enough money for a comfortable retirement. But all of these achievements will be hollow if they don’t align with an overall purpose that holds up under life-and-death scrutiny” (Ellis, 2012, p. 7-8).
Having a strong sense of value is another characteristic identified by George 2003 (as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 198-199), which embodies a “True North” concept that connects authentic leadership to knowing who you are, where you’re going as well as doing the right thing along the way and not compromising on your values in the process. While imprisoned with other fellow soldiers, Ellis noticed that their senior officer, LtCol Minter was being taken for interrogation more than the rest. However, in time, he realized that LtCol Minter was being taken because he was giving the enemy all the information they wanted. As a POW there are rules to capture and one of them is to evade answering questions outside of name, rank, service number, and date of birth (Ellis, 2012, p. 24). Clearly, this senior ranking prisoner had lost his “True North” and eventually he was stripped of his position of authority. Conversely, another officer Ellis was imprisoned with, Capt Fisher, did the exact opposite. In spite of numerous torture sessions, Fisher “endured torture and humiliation to resist enemy exploitation” (Ellis, 2012). Why was it that one prisoner so quickly departed from his loyalties while another maintained them, the reason was “one had real clarity about his values and a very strong commitment to keep them. The other was committed to his values as long as keeping them was convenient” (Ellis, 2012). Being a leader and exemplifying authentic leadership requires consistency. As a leader, followers are watching. When they observe their leadership easily depart their commitments to value and purpose, all respect is lost. On the other hand, when strong commitment is upheld even in times of great duress, respect is earned.
Trust is the currency of true leaders, and is used to purchase the most costly of all expenses, loyalty.
Trust is the currency of true leaders, and is used to purchase the most costly of all expenses, loyalty. Never has there been such necessity for this currency as is required in the confines of a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. Following an adherence of values, authentic leaders understand the importance of establishing trusting relationships with others. The George approach emphasizes this and makes note that “people want to have a trusting relationship with their leaders, In exchange, people are willing to give leaders greater loyalty and commitment” (Northouse, 2016, p. 199). While in the confines of Hanoi, trust was the only currency the prisoners had and it often came with a very high price. As previously mentioned, the two senor ranking officers, one who so quickly sold-out to save himself and the other who endured extreme bouts of torture truly show how valuable trust is and how quick some can abandon it. As for Capt Fisher, he endured, demonstrating a strong commitment to his values and thus earning the trust and respect of his fellow soldiers. However, LtCol Minter not only lost the respect of his fellow prisoners but was also removed from his position of authority as a result (Ellis, 2012). Although this example involves extreme circumstance (torture), the lesson presents itself with absolute clarity. Trusting relationships are important to leadership and without them, you will loose the loyalty of your people.
Understanding what your objectives are and keeping your bearings fixed on those objectives through self-discipline, affords latitude to achieve your goals and to inspire those around you to also stay the course.
Self-discipline is the vehicle that drives leaders through the most challenging of times. Finding yourself in the position of being a prisoner can have many adverse effects aside from the obvious physical implications. Psychological battles also begin to ensue. Coming to a realization that you are facing impending torture and even death at every moment can have detrimental effects. One way to overcome these effects are to maintain a strong sense of self-discipline, which gives leaders “focus and determination” (Northouse, 2016). Understanding what your objectives are and keeping your bearings fixed on those objectives through self-discipline, affords latitude to achieve your goals and to inspire those around you to also stay the course.
The final characteristic identified by George, is being passionate about one’s mission, essentially acting “from the heart” (as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 197). As Ellis recounted his experience, he speaks about his initial thoughts after being captured. “After my capture, I definitely had doubts and fears about what the next hours and days might bring, but there were not second thoughts. I had known the risks, I had made my choices, and I was committed to my cause” (Ellis, 2012, p. 7). His passion for “duty, honor, and country” helped him to stand firm on his values and survive the days, months, and years ahead (Ellis, 2012, p. 7). Being passionate about one’s pursuits is the lifeblood to success. Not only did Lee Ellis utilize his passions for his country to survive his capture, he utilized them to take what he observed and apply leadership lessons from the POW camps in Vietnam to coaching leaders today and writing the book, Leading with Honor.
Although many of us will never experience the challenges Lee Ellis and the many other POWs have faced, we can all appreciate their courage and ability to allow challenge to produce success. Leadership can come in many forms, however I offer that one of the greatest positions of leadership is derived from authentic leadership. Understanding ourselves and learning how to lead from a genuine desire to serve others with purpose and authenticity will naturally result in trust from subordinates and respect that will in turn produce loyalty to which is essential for a team to accomplish the goals set before them.
Ellis, L. (2012). Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Georgia: Freedom Star Media.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.