Authentic leadership: a historical perspective.

Author:Novicevic, Milorad M.

The purpose of this paper is to interpret the historical meanings conveyed by Barnard's classic works and use them for theorizing about authenticity of leaders in executive roles. Our analysis employs an interpretative logic for meanings of historical ideas proposed by Bevir. As an outcome of this analysis, we identify the conditions that contribute to the failure, crisis, tragedy, and/or success of leader authenticity. In addition, we discuss practical and research implications of the proposed framework.


Oftentimes when considering ideas we believe to be novel, we see that they have, in many instances, already received considerable discourse from scholars who have preceded us. Although the nomenclature changes, the gist of the ideas is frequently quite similar. Looking back at the meanings underlying these ideas will provide a more firm theoretical foundation for these "novel" concepts. Instead of starting from a blank slate, we can use these reflective thoughts as a spring board to a more thorough understanding of concepts of interest.

The concept of authenticity (i.e., the idea of "being oneself or being "true to oneself') is becoming a central focus of responsible behavior of leaders in post-Enron era. While in ancient Greece authenticity was ascribed only to leaders who "posited themselves" (Ferrara, 1998: 15), leader authenticity is described today more broadly as leader resolve to take responsibility for personal freedom and organizational and communal obligations so that leaders could make choices that would help them construct their selves as a moral individuals. In management and organization studies, this authentic capacity of a leader to balance responsibilities for private freedom and public obligation was first devised as the litmus test of executive quality by Chester Barnard (1938). When we reacquaint ourselves with Barnard's seminal ideas, we recognize that issues of leader authenticity are always salient--it is just that we accentuate them during the times when major moral shocks occur in the corporate world.

In this paper, we examine the philosophical and psychological traditions in conceptualizing authenticity and explore how Barnard's classic works convey historical meanings of authentic executive leadership. To survey these traditions and interpret these meanings, we use a form of interpretative logic proposed by Bevir (1999) and apply it to tease out Barnard's key ideas of relevance for theorizing on authenticity of executive leadership. The approach is helpful in the identification of the conditions that contribute to myriad outcomes (e.g., failure, crisis, tragedy, and/or success) of executive authenticity in the leadership role.

Issues of executive authenticity are quite salient in the post-Enron times, just as they were salient to Barnard in the post-Depression era. By revisiting management classics (i.e., the classic works of our past) like Barnard's research and by exploring the cultural meanings of management phenomena, we strive to develop an alternative, post-hoc approach to inquiry of executive authenticity, which may facilitate new "possibilities of reinventing theory, reinterpreting evidence, and rediscovering voices and issues" (Kilduff & Dougherty, 2000: 778).

Interpretative Logic of Deriving Historical Meanings from Management Classics

Management phenomena may convey specific cultural meanings, as shown by the evolving research on management fads and fashions (Abrahamson, 1991). The only way to acquire knowledge of how management phenomena evolve as meaningful cultural phenomena is through analyzing historical works. In particular, the discipline of the history of ideas deals with studying cultural meanings from a historical perspective, as historians try to interpret cultural phenomena in terms of historical processes (Bevir, 2000).

Historians of ideas face the daunting challenge of determining what logic (i.e., forms of reasoning) is appropriate for studying the ideas/concepts of interest (e.g., authenticity of executive leadership). Bevir argues that an appropriate logic should be based on post-analytic philosophy, which is grounded in the Wittgensteinian assumption that we share a "grammar of our concepts" (i.e., a common web of beliefs derived from our shared traditions). This logic cannot yield a historical account (i.e., how a historian can uncover historical facts), but rather a normative account of reasoning (i.e., what we as historians do to winnow specific meanings). In turn, normative reasoning can provide us an appropriate rational justification to explain the meanings that we have uncovered.

By opposing both objectivism (i.e., modernist logic of discovery) and skepticism (i.e., post-modernist relativism and irrationalism), Bevir carves a middle-of-the-road path to connect shared traditions with the author's and readers' perspectives in the process of uncovering historical meanings. Specifically, he posits that individual viewpoints of the author and the readers consist of individual thoughts and beliefs that are embedded in the wider web of contemporary beliefs that evolved from traditions. By making connections between traditional and contemporary views, historians of ideas act as translators explaining the people of the past to us today using our own personal lens of discovery.

To support the ascription of meanings to a classic (i.e., certain beliefs to an author's work), historians of ideas should first examine the traditional and contemporary perspectives on the meanings of the concept explored from the classics. Next, historians should organize historical objects (e.g., citations) from the classics studied and relate them to each other, as well as to the traditional and contemporary perspectives, in order to weave many historical artifacts into a single tapestry. In this way, historians of ideas attempt to explain why the author held a specific belief not only by relating it to the author's other beliefs but also by embedding it in the conceptual network to which it belongs. Finally, historians of ideas should be aware that the threads of the tapestries of meanings that they weave out of historical objects are conditional, yet not arbitrary. These threads are not a part of the discovery tapestry, but could be valuable for researchers to weave/construct a post-hoc theory. In the following section, we will weave the threads of authenticity meanings from philosophical and psychological traditions.

Historical Meanings of Authenticity

The concept of authenticity gains prominence in times when individuals facing conflicting social pressures become entrapped in moral dilemmas that are engendered by the complex evolution of modern civilization (Cranton & Carusetta, 2004). The times of evolving change require leaders with a stable philosophy of the self, as well as of others in the organization and community. In such turbulent times, leader authenticity becomes salient because the continuity of organizations as social systems is threatened by multiple discrepancies among leader responsibilities toward the self, toward the followers, and toward other stakeholders (Badaracco, 1992). Multiple meanings of authenticity and discrepancies in authenticity have been examined in history of philosophy and psychology.

Philosophical meanings of authenticity have been historically articulated in terms of individual virtues and ethical choices, while psychological meanings of authenticity have been historically articulated in term of individual traits/states and identities (See Table 1). In the following parts of this section, these varieties of authenticity meanings are addressed in detail.

Philosophical Meanings

The philosophical importance of authenticity was first advocated by the Greek Stoics, as a moral response to declining civic and religious values (Baumeister, 1987). The medieval times emphasized the theological view of the self, grounding authenticity in conceptualization of differences between real and ideal mind and soul (Danzinger, 1997). It was only with the emergence of existential philosophy that the self was construed as a psychological entity, separate from the concepts of mind and soul (Harbus, 2002).

The proximal foundation of the authenticity construct stems from Heidegger's (1962/1927) idea of "winning oneself' by making authentic, self-motivated choices. Heidegger argues that authenticity is particularly relevant in times of radical social change. In these situations, there is a temptation to live 'inauthentically' because change widens the moral gap between individual responsibility for freedom and autonomy and social responsibility to follow the shared norms of the community. This gap makes our daily routines appear empty and alienates us not only from others but also from the self.

Sartre (1948) criticized Heidegger's conceptualization of authenticity arguing that it was vague and open to negative politics of difference. In Sartre's view, the idea of authenticity is positive, as it implies recognition of one's psychological will and skill to balance private interest and public responsibility when choosing alternatives and setting goals. In addition, Adorno (1953) criticized Heidegger's conceptualization of authenticity as a moral "slippery slope" that may easily regress. In Adorno's view, authenticity implies the capacity of the individual to search for progressive ways of managing the demands of personal self-development with the need to develop such capacity in others.

Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to blend the motivational and cognitive bases of authenticity with its emotional basis (Perkins, 1990). In the Kierkegaardian perspective, authenticity can be understood as "one's emotional orientation toward the world" (Furtak, 2003: 424), reflecting the condition of one's emotionally substantive way of living. The primary assumption of this perspective is that emotions, as intentional phenomena, are a part of one's...

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