The Story of My Life: Developing Authentic Leaders

Picture by: William Marlow

Article and Author Information

Courtney Calinog wrote this article in December 2012 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Courtney will graduate from the MSLOC program in 2013 and is a Manager, Talent Solutions Practice at BPI Group.

Abstract

The growing social, ethical and economic challenges facing today’s world have resulted in a calling for authentic leaders who foster trust, integrity and transparency. One strategy for developing authenticity in leaders is the construction and/or sharing of their life story, providing followers with insight into their authenticity. Through an online survey, this study explores how awareness of a leader’s life story impacts followers’ perception of their authenticity, as well as how authentic leadership impacts follower job satisfaction. An analysis of 162 survey responses reveals strong correlations between awareness of a leader’s life story and their perceived authenticity, as well as authentic leadership and follower job satisfaction. Stories of challenge are reported to be most revealing of a leader’s true self.

Introduction of the Question

In the face of growing social, ethical and economic challenges, the world is looking for more from today’s business leaders. It’s no longer enough to craft a vision, execute a strategy and/or mobilize, engage and develop a workforce to drive organizational performance. While these are admittedly critical elements of leadership, people also want to know that they can trust their leaders and be assured that what they see is what they get. They want leaders who are aware of their strengths and shortcomings, are honest and transparent, make balanced and fair decisions, and have a strong moral compass. Now, more than ever, people are calling for leaders to be real, genuine, and true to themselves – in a word, authentic.

Promoting cultures of trust, integrity and transparency, authentic leaders are not only true to themselves, but through leading by example allow others to be the same. And with evidence that authentic leadership positively impacts follower commitment, engagement and job satisfaction (Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, & Peterson, 2008) (Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004)(Peus, Wesche, Streicher, Braun, & Frey, 2012), a focus on authentic leadership development can be seen as both beneficial and important in today’s challenged world of work. Through the development of authentic leaders, as well as authentic followers, leaders and their organizations can benefit, achieving positive ethical climates and sustainable success (W. L. Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005).

But how can authenticity be developed? Recent publications highlight the need to design strategies and interventions focused on the development of authentic leaders (W. L. Gardner, Cogliser, Davis, & Dickens, 2011). However, developing a trait that allows a leader’s genuine self and core values to shine through in all that they do seems like a daunting and potentially fruitless task. While there is currently little evidence that traditional leadership development approaches effectively do this, the construction and/or sharing of a leader’s life story is touted by authentic leadership scholars as a potentially beneficial approach for developing authentic leaders and followers (Shamir & Eilam, 2005) (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007) (Sparrowe, 2005). This is because a leader’s effectiveness is closely linked to the stories they convey about who they are, where they came from and where they are going, all of which give followers insight into their authenticity (H. Gardner, 1995). Therefore, a focus on making leadership development efforts real by examining moments that matter in a person’s life provides one way to ensure that authentic leadership development is a “personal, true-self process” (Avolio & Luthans, 2006).

In an effort to understand the value of a life stories approach to developing authentic leaders, this study explores: How does awareness of a leader's life story, including moments of challenge and success, impact their followers’ perception of their authenticity? Additionally, in order to understand the organizational outcomes associated with investing in authentic leadership development, this study explores: How does authentic leadership impact follower job satisfaction?

Research Methodology

In order to explore these questions, an online survey was designed to understand the relationships between life story awareness and leader authenticity, as well as leader authenticity and follower job satisfaction. The survey instrument included a series of closed ended questions, as well as two open ended questions. While the closed ended questions were intended to explore correlations between the key variables of life story awareness, authentic leadership and job satisfaction, the open ended questions were intended to provide additional color and context and allow people to share their perspectives in their own words.

Measures

Authentic leadership was measured using B. Gardner and Walumbwa's (2007) Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ), comprised of the authentic leadership components of self-awareness, transparency, ethical/moral perspective and balanced processing. (Figure 1)

Figure 1

Job satisfaction was measured using a 5-item version of the Brayfield Rothe scale (Brayfield & Rothe, 1951). This is the same measure as Walumbwa et al.’s (2008) study showing positive association between follower job satisfaction and authentic leadership. Finally, as no existing measure existed for life story awareness, I constructed a 10-item measure based on elements of life stories from my research, including personal history, coping with adverse circumstances, learning from role models and pivotal moments of failure or accomplishment. (Appendix A)

Participants

The survey was distributed to employed business professionals in the United States who had an immediate supervisor and respondents were asked to consider this immediate supervisor when answering the survey questions. Through e-mail and social media, a snowball sampling method was used to recruit survey respondents across a variety of industries, functions and age groups. In the end, a total of 209 surveys were started, resulting in a statistically reliable sample size of 162 respondents after incomplete surveys were discarded. Demographics of the sample group included 34% male/ 66% female across a range of age groups, industries and functions. Given the demographic of my professional network, industry and functional representation in the sample were weighted towards professional services (50%) and human resources (49%), respectively. (Appendix B)

Analysis and Results

Data collected from the online survey was analyzed through a combination of statistical analysis and thematic coding. As a first step, reliability (alpha score of >.7) was tested for the key measures of Life Story Awareness (.89), Authentic Leadership (.942) and Job Satisfaction (.867). (Appendix A) Next, a series of correlation tests was conducted to explore whether statistically significant positive correlations existed between a number of key variables, including:

Table 1The two open-ended questions were analyzed and coded based upon response frequency to understand 1) how followers’ perceptions of their supervisor are influenced by awareness of their supervisor’s life story and 2) which types stories shared have the greatest impact in revealing a supervisor’s true self and why.

Quantitative Results

Life Story Awareness and Authentic Leadership

In support of the hypothesis set forth by this study, a strong positive correlation (significant at the .000 level) was established between life story awareness and authentic leadership. The strength of this relationship is illustrated in the scatter plot graph (Figure 2), with the tightly clustered dots showing as follower’s awareness of their leader’s life story increases, so does their perception of the leader’s authenticity. Given the focus of my primary research question, this positive correlation is one of the most powerful and revealing results of this study.

Figure 2

Authentic Leadership and Follower Job Satisfaction

As shown in previous studies linking authentic leadership to positive follower outcomes, there is also a strong positive correlation (significant at the .000 level) between authentic leadership and follower job satisfaction. (Figure 3) This suggests that the more authentic followers perceive their leader to be, the more satisfied they are likely to be in their jobs.

Figure 3

Impact of Length of Time Known or Managed by Leader

There is not a statistically significant correlation between the length of time a person has known or been managed by their leader and their awareness of their life story or perception of their authenticity. This suggests that the quality of leader/follower interactions is more important than the length of the relationship in determining life story awareness and perceived authenticity.

Qualitative Results

The Influence of Life Story Sharing

The first qualitative question explored how respondents’ perceptions of their supervisor are influenced when their supervisor openly shares elements of their life story. This question was presented in two parts. In Part I, respondents were asked to “select all that apply” from multiple-choice list of answers that mapped to the four components of authentic leadership: self-awareness, transparency, balanced processing and ethical/moral perspective. The responses “my perception is unchanged” and “I perceive them to be unprofessional” were also possible choices for those who experienced no impact or negative impact from their leader’s life story sharing. In Part II, respondents were asked to provide open-ended comments regarding their selections to provide color and insight regarding why their perceptions were influenced in this way.

Part I: A quantitative frequency analysis (n=162) revealed that the vast majority (72.2%) perceived their supervisor to be open and forthcoming when they openly shared elements of their life story. In addition, half (50.6%) said they perceived their supervisor to be more aware of their strengths and limitations. Interestingly, while 14.8% said their perception was unchanged, only 2.5% said they found the supervisor’s sharing of personal information to be unprofessional. Figure 4 provides the full frequency analysis of responses (n=162) and how response each maps to authentic leadership, if applicable.

Figure 4

Part II: Open-ended comments (n=75) clarifying why respondent perceptions were influenced in the ways designated in Figure 4 were thematically coded and put through a frequency analysis. Many responses received multiple codes. For those whose perception was positively influenced, the most frequent responses suggested that life story sharing served to 1) humanize their supervisor 2) build trust and connection in their relationship and 3) demonstrate authenticity. Only 2.5% of responses related to the sharing of personal information being unprofessional, citing that their supervisor's stories seemed fabricated or caused discomfort due to their personal nature. (See Appendix C for the full frequency analysis)

What About the Types of Stories Shared?

The second open ended question asked respondents which types of stories shared has the greatest impact in revealing their supervisor’s true self and why. Responses (n=159) were thematically coded and put through a frequency analysis, with many responses receiving more than one code. Interestingly, a vast majority of responses fell into the “Challenges” category, representing stories of personal hardship, mistakes or failures and other non-specific challenges. (See Figure 5 and Figure 6) This suggests that followers perceive stories of challenge to be the most influential in revealing their supervisor’s true self. Additionally, only 1.4% of responses suggested that sharing of stories had a negative and/or no impact in revealing a supervisor's true self. The full frequency analysis of responses, including definitions, is outlined in Appendix D.

Revealing One’s True Self

Figure 5

When asked why these stories had the greatest impact in revealing their supervisor’s true self, a frequency count of responses (n=67) revealed a multitude of perspectives. The most common was that the stories were humanizing, defined as making their supervisor appear more human, relatable, fallible or vulnerable. All of these words speak to the spirit of authenticity, which is about being true to yourself, even if this means showing weaknesses, imperfection or vulnerability. Many respondents also felt that their supervisor’s life story helped them judge their character, including their ethics, values, morals and motivators – a strong link to the ethical/moral Figure 6perspective element of authentic leadership. Others felt their supervisor’s life story demonstrated how they think or make decisions, linking to the balanced processing element of authentic leadership. (See Appendix E for full frequency analysis of responses)

Limitations

While this study was based on reliable measures and yielded statistically significant results, several limitations exist. First, the data sample was predominately (66%) female and clustered in the human resources and consulting industries. Second, the qualitative questions were both presented in two parts, which added a layer of complexity to the analysis. Although they provided meaningful conclusions, the analysis was cumbersome and perhaps more subjective than it would have been with better constructed questions.

The Moral of the Story: Interpretation and Recommendations

  • The primary purpose of this study was to understand how awareness of a leader's life story, including moments of challenge and/or success, impacts followers’ perception of their authenticity. Based on the study results, it’s clear that followers perceive their leaders to be more authentic (defined by self-awareness, transparency, ethical/moral perspective and balanced processing) when they are aware of their life stories. In fact, as follower’s awareness of their leader’s life story increases, so does their perception of the leader’s authenticity.
  • A number of authentic leadership studies have suggested correlations between authentic leadership and positive follower outcomes, such as commitment, engagement and job satisfaction. Therefore, a secondary purpose was to re-establish one of these correlation by understanding how authentic leadership impacts job satisfaction. Study findings were consistent with Walumbwa et al.'s (2008) study, suggesting that the more authentic followers perceive their leader to be, the more satisfied they are likely to be in their jobs.
  • In terms of building authenticity, study results reveal that the length of time a person has known or been managed by their supervisor does not impact their perception of that person’s authenticity, or their awareness of their life story. This suggests that the quality of leader/follower interactions is more important than the length of the relationship in determining life story awareness and perceived authenticity.
  • Follower perceptions were influenced in a multitude of positive ways when supervisors openly shared their life stories. Importantly, followers suggested that a supervisor’s open sharing of their life story built deeper, more genuine relationships, serving to humanize, build trust and connection and demonstrate authenticity on the part of their supervisor.
  • The types of stories shared were also important to followers. In fact, followers perceive stories of challenge, including personal hardship, mistakes or failures and other non-specific challenges, to be the most influential in revealing their supervisor’s true self. They also feel that the most influential stories are humanizing and provide data by which to judge a leader’s character, including their ethics, values, morals, motivators, as well as their thinking/decision making processes. Based on these findings, leaders should be encouraged to share their stories of hardship, failure and challenge in order to positively influence followers.
  • Finally, across all elements of this study, negative impacts of leader life story sharing reported by followers were minimal. As a result, leaders should feel assured and encouraged that the benefits of sharing their stories far outweigh any potential risks.

The findings of this study suggest that a focus on authentic leadership development can be seen as both beneficial and important in today’s world of work. Specifically, leadership development approaches that help leaders to construct and share their life stories should be viewed as a worthwhile investment with significant upside for leaders, their teams and their organizations. At an individual level, a life stories development approach will allow leaders to reflect and connect with the experiences, successes and challenges that have shaped their values and made them who they are today, ultimately enhancing their ability to lead from an authentic place. As a result, followers/teams will likely experience greater job satisfaction, which ultimately benefits the organizations these leaders are a part of.

Implications

The results of this study advance authentic leadership research by surfacing important conclusions regarding the usefulness of authentic leadership development strategies – specifically those focused on leader life story construction and sharing. This life stories approach to authentic leadership development provides one way to address the challenge of how to develop authenticity in leaders when traditional leadership development methods have proven ineffective. As Avolio and Luthans (2006) state, leaders “almost always tell the life ‘story’ of their leadership development, never the wonderful leadership development program they attended” (p. 14). Therefore, it’s the interventions focused on the construction and sharing of a leader’s life story that develop their authenticity.

Leaders who want to increase their effectiveness, as well as the effectiveness of their followers, by leading authentically from their core values, beliefs and principles could benefit greatly from a life stories-oriented leadership development approach. OD and LOC practitioners who are designing and implementing leadership development programs can also use the findings of this research to create reflective leadership development interventions that help leaders connect with their authentic selves. Ultimately, by establishing the value of a life stories approach, this research helps to ensure that authentic leadership development strategies and interventions are targeted, impactful and ultimately result in real and sustained performance improvements for leaders, their followers and their organizations.

Areas for Future Research

While the results of this study clearly establish the case for investing in authentic leadership development, particularly those approaches that incorporate life stories, questions remain regarding the best execution strategy and approach. Specifically, what are the most effective designs for leadership development interventions focused life story exploration and sharing? What role could coaching play in this self-reflection and self-development process? How effective are group experiences where leaders explore, construct and share their stories with each other in developing authenticity? How might cultural differences impact the value and/or impact of the life stories approach? Finally, beyond the life stories approach, what other strategies, methods, tools and approaches can be used to develop authentic leaders?

Additionally, although the results of this study suggest the risk of negative impact from leader life story sharing is minimal, it seems important and relevant for leaders to understand the best practices for successfully and authentically sharing their life stories. For example, how do followers assess the authenticity of a life story in determining whether they trust and believe in the leader? Additionally, is there a line that can be crossed that shifts a story from being authentically transparent and/or vulnerable to being unprofessional or damaging to a leader’s reputation? If so, how or when is this line crossed? These types of insights could provide leaders with a helpful roadmap to ensure the sharing of their life story has maximum positive impact for themselves and their followers.

In discussing how to become an authentic leader, Bill George, the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Medtronic states, “Although we may be born with leadership potential, all of us have to develop ourselves to become good leaders. The medium for developing into an authentic leader is not the destination, but the journey itself – a journey to find your true self and the purpose of your life’s work”(W. L. Gardner & Schermerhorn Jr., 2004). If developing into an authentic leader can be summed up as a journey to find the true self and understand the story of one’s life (George et al., 2007), an important next step in the field of authentic leadership is a building a practical understanding of how to support leaders in this journey. This will ensure that leaders, teams and organizations are able to effectively tap into the exponential value to be realized through the development of authentic leaders.

References

Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Walumbwa, F. O., Luthans, F., & May, D. R. (2004). Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 15(6), 801–823. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2004.09.003

Avolio, B. J., & Luthans, F. (2006). The High Impact Leader: Moments Matter in Accelerating Authentic Leadership Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brayfield, A. H., & Rothe, H. F. (1951). An index of job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, (35), 307–311.

Gardner, B., & Walumbwa, F. O. (2007). Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ). Mind Garden, Inc.

Gardner, H. (1995). Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 343–372. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.003

Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(6), 1120–1145. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.09.007

Gardner, W. L., & Schermerhorn Jr., J. R. (2004). Unleashing Individual Potential:: Performance Gains Through Positive Organizational Behavior and Authentic Leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 33(3), 270–281. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2004.06.004

George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(2), 129–138.

Peus, C., Wesche, J., Streicher, B., Braun, S., & Frey, D. (2012). Authentic Leadership: An Empirical Test of Its Antecedents, Consequences, and Mediating Mechanisms. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(3), 331–348. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-1042-3

Shamir, B., & Eilam, G. (2005). “What’s your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 395–417. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.005

Sparrowe, R. T. (2005). Authentic leadership and the narrative self. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 419–439. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.004

Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure†. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89–126. doi:10.1177/0149206307308913

Appendix A

Measures, Definitions and Reliability

Appendix A

Appendix B

Survey Demographics

Appendix B1 Appendix B2 Appendix B3

Appendix C

Please explain your selection(s) (from Figure 4). Why are your perceptions influenced in this way? (Frequency analysis of responses linked to Authentic Leadership)

Appendix C1 Appendix C2

Appendix D

What type(s) of stories shared (i.e. work experiences, accomplishments, personal hardships, failures, challenges faced, etc.) do you perceive as most influential in revealing your immediate supervisor’s true self?

Appendix D

Appendix E

Why do these stories (from Appendix D) have the greatest impact in revealing their supervisor’s true self?

Appendix E
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