Note: The following blog is adapted and updated from Chapter Seven of Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.
Leaders are often depicted as Superheroes — strong, confident, bold, decisive, empathic, and visionary. Researchers identify an ever-greater range of attributes and skills that all leaders should aspire to develop and which a select few are deemed to possess. Nor does there seem to be any cap on the number of consultants who promise to teach the skills that are said to be needed.
I look here at an area of leadership research, Authentic Leadership Theory (henceforth, ALT), that has gained much ground in recent years and which fits this pattern precisely. The growing interest in ALT reflects a wider preoccupation with the whole idea of “authenticity,” often defined in terms of how consistent our internal values are with how we express ourselves to others. However, ALT is characterized by feeble theorizing, questionable research practices, a bias for positive results, and dubious statistical analysis. Its glossy surface conceals dry rot, crumbling foundations, and more than a whiff of scandal. Notably, several key papers in the development of ALT have been retracted for flawed statistical analysis. But, as I will now try to show, there is much more that is wrong here than an inability by some researchers to grasp the statistical techniques they are using.
What is Authentic Leadership, and Why Does It Matter?
The tone of the literature is captured in the following definition of authentic leadership, from five of its leading advocates. They describe ALT as “a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness and an internalised moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development” (Italics in the original; Walumbwa et al., 2008, p. 94).
The word “positive” runs throughout many of the publications advocating authentic leadership and establishes it as a part of the movement known as “positive psychology.” Positive psychology fully owns this connection: “As a positive construct, descriptive words include genuine, reliable, trustworthy, real, and veritable. Positive psychologists conceive this authenticity as both owning one’s personal experiences (thoughts, emotions, or beliefs, ‘the real me inside’) and acting in accord with the true self (behaving and expressing what you really think and believe)” (Luthans & Avolio, 2003, p. 242).
Thus, there seems to be no limit to the results that authentic leaders can produce. It is claimed that they satisfy followers’ basic needs, encourage followers to be more authentic in their own behaviors, and cause them to display moral courage. They also produce superior business results. Authentic leaders, it is said, exemplify high moral standards, integrity, and honesty, “and their favourable reputation fosters positive expectations among employees, enhancing their levels of trust and willingness to cooperate with the leader for the benefit of the organization” (Hsieh & Wang, 2015, p. 2341). Others argue that “… the influence of authentic leaders extends well beyond bottom-line success; such leaders have a role to play in the greater society by tackling public policy issues and addressing organizational and societal problems” (Avolio et al., 2004, p. 802). Here, business leaders are seemingly encouraged to regard themselves in a messianic fashion. Just as with transformational leadership, authentic leaders are viewed as possessing an extraordinary ability to influence others and effect positive change. There is no real discussion of conflict or power in the literature on authentic leadership, leading to the production of what Alessia Contu (2018) calls “a managerialist, patriarchal and paternalist fantasy where management assumes its primary, legitimate role and everyone else fulfils their position in this (presumed) consensus-based way of life” (p. 7). Where do these fantasies come from?
War Stories, Fables, and Tautologies
Much of the early writing on transformational leadership had its origins in recounting the war stories of business leaders. So, it also goes with ALT. Bill George is a former CEO of Medtronic and is now credited by Harvard Business School — fad surfers par excellence — as the architect of the program it offers on authentic leadership. He published a widely cited and co-authored book in 2003 entitled True North, followed by an equally well cited co-authored article in Harvard Business Review in 2007. Much of the subsequent literature reads as little more than variations on the themes outlined by George. Yet it is sobering to reread his original book. It is a collection of banalities that was only taken seriously because its author was a former CEO. Typical of the text, we read: “True North is the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point — your fixed point in a spinning world — that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life” (George, 2003, p. xxiii).
Needless to say, these cherished values, passions and motivations are all viewed as unremittingly positive in nature.
What if your real self is a jackass?
In the real world, no human being possesses traits that are wholly positive or wholly negative. We are constituted by our presence and interaction with other people, so that different aspects of our nature and what we think of as our inner self continually comes to the fore and retreats into the background. No one is constantly authentic in the terms described by the authentic leadership literature. I rather suspect that anyone who tried would be so sanctimonious that we would find them unbearable.
It begs a key question: What if your dominant inner self is a jackass? Why does ALT fixate only on the positive attributes that are said to constitute authenticity? There are many leaders (Harvey Weinstein comes to mind, alongside Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes; see my recent blog, “The Leadership of Elizabeth Holmes: Lessons From the Dark Side of Silicon Valley,” for details.) who show a face to the world that is completely at odds with their actual behavior. They are… well, chose your own pejorative adjectives. Yet their real natures seemingly would be dismissed by authentic leadership theorists as… inauthentic. Such Pollyannaish views of human nature suggest that if only such leaders looked deeply enough inside themselves, they would find a purer version of who they really are that they could bring forth and showcase to the world. I confess to some doubts. In addition, many of us have multiple identities, and we often struggle to make these seem consistent with the identities projected by those who are perceived to be “typical” leaders (Ayaz et al., 2023). ALT is little more than a series of fables, designed to reassure us that leadership is simpler than it is and that introspection can move us all closer to perfection.
Theory as tautology
In line with this, ALT presents leadership as all good things to everyone. But maintaining this line means that its theory confounds cause with effect. Essentially, the effects that are attributed to authentic leadership frequently turn out to be identical to what is claimed to have caused them. I offer here one example: “Authentic leadership behaviour is positively related to follower perceptions of leader behavioural integrity” (Leroy et al., 2012). Think about it. All this really means is that leaders who behave with integrity are seen as behaving with integrity.
It seems to me that researchers in this mold are increasingly seeking to find pre-determined answers rather than discover a series of objective truths, some of which might clash with their theory. And if you are setting out to establish mind-boggling tautologies along the lines that leaders who behave with integrity are seen as behaving with integrity, it is scarcely surprising that you will succeed. It would be hard not to. Ironically, ALT turns out to be deeply inauthentic in the way its theorists approach empirical data. How do we explain this?
The problem is that our stories about leaders are rarely separated from our knowledge of the outcomes for which we are holding them responsible.
The Romance of Leadership
Consider what is often described the “romance of leadership.” This stream of thought draws on the influential work of James Meindl, Sanford Ehrlich, and Janet Dukerich in 1985. They argued that we have a tendency to overattribute responsibility for organizational outcomes to leaders. Humans love stories, and there is no story simpler than that Leader A has caused Outcome B.
This explains the widespread confusion between correlation and causation in popular thinking and even in many academic publications. The effect is particularly strong when there is a gap between two events in organizations. A new leader is appointed, and performance goes up or down. Either way, people have a natural tendency to explain the outcome by attributing responsibility to the leader. The leader is good or bad, authentic or inauthentic, visionary or uninspired, a genius or a dolt. The problem is that our stories about leaders are rarely separated from our knowledge of the outcomes for which we are holding them responsible. So, precisely the same leadership behaviours can be described in opposite ways, depending entirely on the outcome. Thus, if an organization succeeds, the leader was authentic. If it fails, the leader was inauthentic — but the behaviour of the leaders in question might well have been identical. We are simply seeing retrospective attributions for complex organizational processes.
The work of Phil Rosenzweig is crucial to a deeper understanding of this process. His book The Halo Effect: How Managers Let Themselves Be Deceived looks in detail at a number of well-known companies and leaders and how periods of spectacular success were followed by problems and setbacks. This is to be expected. No one is constantly successful, and the phenomenon of regression to the mean suggests that either superior or inferior performance is likely to be followed by something closer to the average. This helps explain why football teams who sack a manager after a poor performance usually show a temporary improvement in performance, while a manager who is praised after a run of successes usually shows a decline in performance.
The critical insight offered by Rosenzweig is that the behaviors of their leaders had not changed. But they were described differently, particularly by the business press, depending on our knowledge of organizational outcomes. The long and the short of it is that retrospective attributions of responsibility to leaders for success or failure are unreliable when we are already aware of organizational outcomes. We simply exaggerate a leader’s responsibility for success or failure, and craft images of positive or negative leadership behaviors (such as, authenticity or inauthenticity) to be consistent with our attributions. In my view, this rather undermines the attempts to present the belief by many people that they can readily identify authentic leaders as supplementary evidence in support of ALT (Gardner & McCauley, 2022). Maybe some can. It is just as likely that many such attributions are halo errors produced by “the romance of leadership.”
All this compounds the problem of determining causality in leadership studies. Take any of the dimensions of authentic leadership, such as self-awareness, and consider the problems of causality that it reveals. Researchers claim that authentic leaders are self-aware and that their self-awareness produces more authentic, committed, motivated, and productive followers. Yet the self-awareness of leaders is largely assessed by responses obtained from followers, who generally don’t possess the gift of mind-reading. Leaders may come across as more self-aware when they share information with followers, and they are more likely to engage in plausible self-disclosures when the followers in question are committed, motivated, and productive. Rather than self-awareness causing the various effects that are claimed for it, the “effects” themselves may create the attribution of self-awareness.
The Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman (1988) once wrote, “The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally” (p. 218). Without this, we have pseudo-science. Researchers into authentic leadership have fallen into this trap and show no desire to escape from it. In the several years since I published the critique this blog is drawn from, little has changed. I am afraid that it is time to go back to the drawing board.
Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Walumbwa, F., Luthans, F., & May, D. (2004). Unlocking the Mask: A Look at the Process by Which Authentic Leaders Impact Follower Attitudes and Behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 801-823. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.09.003
Ayaz, O., Ozbilkgin, M., Samdanis, M., & Torunoglu, D. (2023). Authenticity and Atypicality in Leadership: Can an Atypical Leader Afford to Be Authentic? International Journal of Management Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12355
Contu, A. (2018). Conflict and Organization Studies. Organization Studies. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840617747916
Feynman, R. (1988). “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Further Adventures of a Curious Character. W. Norton.
Gardner, W., & McCauley, K. (2022). The Gaslighting of Authentic Leadership. Leadership, 18, 801-813. https://doi.org/10.1177/17427150221111056
George, W. (2003). Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. Jossey-Bass.
Hsieh, C., & Wang, D. (2015). Does Supervisor-Perceived Authentic Leadership Influence Employee Work Engagement Through Employee-perceived Authentic Leadership and Employee Trust? The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26, 2329-2348. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2015.1025234
Leroy, H., Palanski, M., & Simons, T. (2012). Authentic Leadership and Behavioral Integrity as Drivers of Follower Commitment and Performance. Journal of Business Ethics, 107, 255-264. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-1036-1
Luthans, F., & Avolio, B. (2003). Authentic Leadership: A Positive Developmental Approach. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 241-261). Barrett-Koehler.
Walumbwa, F., Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Wernsing, T., & Peterson, S. (2008). Authentic Leadership Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure. Journal of Management, 34, 89-126. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206307308913
About Professor Dennis Tourish
I am a Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex Business School. I have a particular interest in dysfunctional and dark side leadership, which probably comes from growing up in Northern Ireland at a time of great conflict between its two main communities. We had many dark side leaders, and miserable times as a result of their activities. All this fed into my book The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, published by Routledge in 2013.
I also have a strong interest in organisations that we commonly think of as cults, particularly but not exclusively those of a political nature. There are more of these than we normally imagine, and most of us can be vulnerable to the appeal of cult membership when we are going through some major crisis in our lives. Put simply, we are in pain – and a cult and its leaders offer to make the pain go away. This interest is reflected in what is now an old book that I co-authored with Tim Wohlforth – On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, published by ME Sharpe in 2000.
More recently, I have also become interested in research ethics and in research fraud. It seems to me that much of the research which appears in academic journals is bogged down in trivial issues, that its methods are often unable to really address the issues being investigated, and even that an unknown but significant amount of it is based on fraud. Leadership studies is far from immune. There are many reasons for this, but the pressure put on academics to publish to advance their careers is one of them. This led to my book Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. It seems that many people share my concerns. I published a paper in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education in 2020 called ‘The triumph of nonsense in management studies,’ based on my book. To my surprise it won their best paper of the year award.
Leadership really matters, in business, society and politics. My interest is in helping people to spot where it is going wrong, and encouraging everyone not to put too much reliance on the alleged wisdom of powerful people at the top. We face many problems. An engaged and critical citizenry, at work and elsewhere, is vital if we are to overcome them.