For this blog post I have chosen to discuss authentic leadership and how it relates to my past experiences. I have tried to refrain from overly referencing my military leadership experiences from my time as an infantryman, mostly because I have referenced those experiences a lot in my previous leadership-oriented courses. This week’s topic of authentic leadership has brought too many referenceable points for me to ignore and so I am going to share some of my own experiences in the military as an authentic leader. Before I delve into this however it is important to note Northouse’s (2016) general regard for authentic leadership, as noted throughout his chapter on the topic. Northouse (2016) continuously points out how this theory is still in its relatively early processes of development and so there is still little in the ways of significant empirical findings supporting this theory. Northouse (2016, p. 207) even points out how one should be “cautious” when relying on the current research findings when making assumptions of the theory’s generalizability.
Now I am going to discuss the three main descriptions for what authentic leadership means. There are three main descriptions for this style or approach; “interpersonal, intrapersonal, and developmental”. Simply put, the interpersonal understanding of authentic leadership emphasizes the importance of leader-follower relationships to this approach (Eagly, 2005; Pennsylvania State University, 2018). Intrapersonal refers to the apparent opposite of this focus as it emphasizes the internal qualities of an authentic leader (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). Shamir and Eilam (2005) described the intrapersonal description as an authentic leader being true to oneself and generally not simply acting as a replica or imitation of someone else. The developmental description is different from these first two descriptions and so does not discount the importance of either inter- or intrapersonal viewpoints. Walumbwa’s (2008) take on the developmental meaning of authentic leadership emphasized the importance of external events (e.g. daily work experiences) and that of personal character qualities of the leader which are associated with such authenticity.
As for my personal experience, I was placed in charge of a squad of no more than twelve men. I had never served in this leadership role and had only led a team of no more than four men prior to this position. I served in this role for approximately three months before my platoon had finally received transfers from other platoons. Among these transfers were a few senior leaders, more senior than I, and this resulted in my placement back as a team leader. The comparable qualities of this experience and authentic leadership theory center around my role and the “rookies” who had just transferred to our platoon when I was placed in this position. Important to note, I use the term “rookies” instead of the term we had used, for simplicity.
Beyond the various definitions offered, there are two types of approaches for explaining what authentic leadership consists of; practical approaches and theoretical approaches (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). Practical approaches covered include Terry’s (1993) Authentic Leadership Wheel and George’s 2003) Authentic Leadership Approach (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). The theoretical approaches are described as being less “clear-cut” than the practical approaches and Northouse is said to have presented the findings thus far in relation to one another (Pennsylvania State University, 2018).
George’s (2003) practical approach to authentic leadership outlined “five basic characteristics” such a leader must exemplify, which I will compare with my own personal experiences being used here (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). The first characteristic, “they understand their purpose”, was present as I knew what I was responsible for doing as a squad leader (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). This is not merely my understanding of my tasks, but the deeper understanding of such a role’s importance as it affects the junior members’ development and well-being. Second, “they have strong values about the right thing to do”, was fulfilled as I always checked myself as such a position can and has been abused for personal benefits (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). I also knew my own attitude at the time towards the military should not interfere with the junior members as they are just starting their contractual service. Third, “they establish trusting relationships with others”, was exemplified through my empathetic behavior towards those serving in my squad at that time (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). We all lived in the same section of the barracks building and I would not only regularly check up on them during the work day, but during the off hours as well. Fourth, “they demonstrate self-discipline and act on their values”, was exemplified as I strived for a consistently fair and just leadership style for as long as I served in this capacity (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). Finally, “they are passionate about their mission”, was exemplified but this characteristic is more complicated in my situation (Northouse, 2016, 2016, p. 197). I was motivated to do a good job for as long as I was needed as a squad leader, but throughout the entire experience I knew I wanted to return to the civilian life after my contract ended. It is hard for me to truthfully say I was passionate about this position as I knew I wanted a change of career, but I was passionate in the sense I did not want to let anyone down, and so I strived for success.
Going deeper into George’s (2003) approach we are presented with the five dimensions he had identified authentic leaders as fulfilling; “purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline, and heart” (Northouse, 2016, p. 197). Each dimension is also noted as being connected to one other characteristic each; “passion, behavior, connectedness, consistency, and compassion”, respectively (Northouse, 2016, p. 198). As I already described, my purpose at the time I served as squad leader was clear to me, namely the important influences I may have had on the junior members. Again, I may or may not have had a strong passion for the job, but situationally I was passionate about doing a good job as a leader. My values were consistent throughout most of my daily interactions as demonstrated through my behaviors. For example, I strongly believed the junior members should not be used to do my work for me like cleaning or buying supplies. This value prevented me from behaving in an unjust and unfair manner. As for the relationships dimension, much as I described earlier for the third characteristic outlined by George (2003), I had established a trusting relationship between my followers where they could feel comfortable in coming to me for help. My self-discipline, although not perfect, maintained a consistency to my behaviors as a squad leader. This was especially important as all it takes to lose faith from followers sometimes is one single costly mistake or lapse of judgment. My persona as a leader in which they could emulate required consistent diligence in self-control. Finally, the heart dimension had been connected to the authentic leader’s compassion (Northouse, 2016, p. 198). Perhaps my most relevant weakness of these characteristics during those experiences, but still evident to some extent through my actions. Shamefully, I was guilty of choosing favorites and treating them differently than the other followers, especially compared to the few followers I personally despised. Suffice to say, in most instances I was selectively compassionate. Ideally however, compassion should be given fairly and without bias and so my past experiences in this regard are imperfect.
Northouse (2016) follows up with the discussion of practical approaches to authentic leadership with a concise review of several theoretical approaches. One of these theoretical approaches is that of Walumbwa and associates (2008), as referenced by Northouse (2016), where four components of authentic leadership were found. These four components are “self-awareness, internalized moral perspectives, balanced processing, and relational transparency” (Northouse, 2016, p. 202).
The first component, self-awareness, is an honest understanding of oneself. This is often not fully obtainable and usually requires continual practice of self-reflection, but I was self-aware as a squad leader to a reasonable extent (Northouse, 2016). I knew my limits, my strengths and weaknesses, where I lacked in knowledge, etc. Self-awareness works both ways on the confidence spectrum however. I was younger and therefor less sure of myself and so I often underestimated my abilities. I also had moments of arrogance as I had more faith in my abilities than was probably warranted. This component is crucial to an authentic leader as it is the leader being honest with his or herself.
The second component, internalized moral perspective, works well along the lines of authenticity as self-awareness does, but it involves the application of that awareness. An authentic leader should know his or her values and then strive to live by those values as much as possible without external interference (Northouse, 2016). Personally, I hold dearly to my moral values and had been this way since before I was in that leadership role. Staying true to my moral compass was not quite as difficult as maintaining a constant state of truthful self-awareness.
The third component, balanced processing, is a skill I was least proficient at when I was younger, but I have made noticeable improvements in this regard over the last couple years. Balanced processing helps an authentic leader keep an unbiased, objective mindset when serving in leadership roles (Northouse, 2016, p. 203). I was not totally unaware of my followers’ needs and perspectives, but as a leader under a lot of daily pressure it was difficult to lay aside my biases and perspectives. This behavior requires a leader to be calm and composed, which as many of us know is quite difficult while under pressure at work.
The fourth component, relational transparency, is debatably an area where I was strong, but it depends on perspective. Relation transparency is described by Northouse (2016, p. 203) as involving an honest representation of the leader’s self to the followers. This honest representation is built on a conductive relationship between leader and followers through effective communication. I always attempted to show an honest representation of myself as a squad leader. My followers knew I was new to the role and so I refrained from actions suggesting otherwise. I also leveled with them on a personal level at times when little information was being passed down to us from higher up.
In the end, my relatively short experience as a squad leader in the military was incredibly insightful and a great source of hands-on experience. The three main means to defining authentic leadership as included at the start of this post can all be identified in my experience. These three definitions can also be seen throughout the other factors discussed for authentic leaders, as authentic leadership often involves authenticity with followers, with oneself, and as a process affected by the environment and situational factors. Beyond this, I also identified how George’s (2003) five characteristics and five dimensions of authentic leadership not only applies to my experiences, but also how they relate to other findings such as the four components of authentic leadership in the theoretical perspective referenced from Walumbwa’s and associates’ (2008) work (Northouse, 2016, p. 202).
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