Authentic leadership is a leadership style that is receiving attention because it has many positive aspects. What do leaders mean when they talk about authentic leadership in organizations? Jolijn investigated this question in her master's thesis.
Who is Jolijn?
Jolijn van Diesen is a junior strategy and leadership consultant at boutique consultancy firm Bolster. Her thesis was nominated for the David van Lennep Thesis Prize of 2023. This Thesis Prize is awarded annually by the Dutch Foundation for Psychotechnology (NSvP) to the three best master theses in the field of people, work and organization.
Van Diesen distinguished various aspects and behaviors of leaders. This includes:
- be true to oneself
- self development
- competencies and behavior
Her research showed that the context, personal characteristics and the lens through which leaders' behavior is viewed determine whether there is authentic leadership. We asked Jolijn questions about her research and the relationship between the content of her thesis and her work at Bolster, where she has been working since the beginning of this year.
It is said that authentic leadership has many positive aspects. Which aspects are generally mentioned the most?
'The moment you are authentic in a conversation with an employee, for example, it is almost always mentioned positively. “Because I was authentic, the conversation partner thought it was a nice collaboration or was able to do the work better afterwards.” Hardly any negative points emerged in the interviews in combination with authentic leadership. Is that because they are not there, or that they are not top of mind? Don't know. In any case, it was striking that the leaders themselves only mentioned positive outcomes.'
Flexibility, humor, reliability and commitment were mentioned as competencies of authentic leaders. At the same time, negative qualities were not mentioned. When it came to character, only positive personality traits were mentioned or strengths instead of weaknesses. So you can say that authentic leadership has a positive connotation.'
How did your interest in this subject arise?
'I heard the word authentic in so many places and I started to wonder more and more what exactly that means. You have the word authentic and the word leadership, and you have the two together. Authentic has a Van Dale definition and leadership also has a certain definition. Being authentic is mainly about yourself, while leadership implies that it is about you in connection with something or someone. As a result, the two concepts initially seem to contradict each other, but they are often linked together as a certain form of leadership. We use the term and have a certain idea about it, but it is actually not very precise. It is unclear whether everyone understands authentic leadership the same way. I wanted to investigate this based on this line of thought.
I also enjoyed sitting down with leaders to discuss this approach. These are generally strong and interesting personalities. Ultimately, I had twenty fascinating conversations with leaders on this topic.'
For example, what questions did you ask interviewed leaders?
'It was a semi-structured interview. In this case, this means that five questions were set and in addition to those questions, I asked what was being said. The fixed questions remained the guiding principle throughout the conversation. So at the end of the interviews I had an answer to at least the fixed questions for comparison, plus enrichment through further input from the interviewed leader.'
Your research shows that the traditional concept of authenticity consists of several components. Can you tell us more about this?
'In the literature, one particular definition is most commonly used, despite the fact that opinions on this are divided. I also used this definition as the basis for my research. Authentic Leadership, according to science, consists of four elements:
- Self-awareness: knowing who you are and what drives you. Be open about this with others and continue to work/discover this
- Relational transparency: ensuring clear relationships, trust in the interaction between you as a leader and the person being led
- Moral compass: your principles are visible and you act consistently with them, say what you do and do what you say. Often focused on the long term and usually predictable.
- Balance in decisions – criticism sharpens the mind, questioning and challenging one's own ideas. Be open to positive and negative feedback, look at information objectively and encourage others to express their (different) opinions.
In the interviews I assumed that everyone had their own definition of authentic leadership, so we mainly talked about that. I did have a definition at hand, if someone really had no idea, I would use that definition if conversation would otherwise become difficult.'
“A combination of context, personal characteristics of the leader and the lens through which leader behavior is viewed determines whether there is authentic leadership”. Tell.
'Where the conclusion was drawn in science that authentic leadership consists of four concepts, I discovered that these concepts were also reflected in the words of my interviewed leaders, but above all that they mentioned even more. A number of changing factors returned.
I summarized all this and it turned out that authentic leadership involves a form of behavior, such as conveying a message. Then three things are important. The authenticity; so you stay close to yourself, you are transparent, it fits in with your own consciousness and development. It is also important that it suits your character and your competencies. Are you good at conveying a message, is that done through a quiet conversation or shouting? Third, the context is also important. If you want to convey a message to three hundred people, as a leader you will have to approach it differently than if you convey a message to one person.
What was also noted as striking was that in the same situation two different forms of conversation were identified as authentic. One leader spoke of authentic because she had had a conversation full of empathy, as she would do in private. While another leader also called a conversation authentic while bellowing at an employee and issuing a big warning. They both called two different forms of behavior authentic because the behavior simply suited their character. So you're dealing with context and character.'
'Authentic leadership is different in different situations, or with a different leader. The critical element in determining whether leadership is authentic is the lens, consisting of three components (authenticity, leader, and context) through which leadership behavior is evaluated. In addition, the leader himself is also changeable, he also feels different every day, phase of life or with the next company. Some conversations also focused on authenticity at home or at work. There were leaders who said that they were exactly the same at home as they were at work and vice versa, others said that they had a parent role at home and acted from there, but at work they acted as a director. Yet both were identified as authentic.'
You are a junior consultant at Bolster. In what form do you see authentic leadership at Bolster?
'What I immediately noticed during the conversations before I was even hired was that they were completely different from other companies. I had prepared quite standardly, because job interviews often go the same way. My conversation with thomas (Bearpaw) and Andy (van de Poel) immediately turned out completely differently. They didn't ask anything about my CV or even if or what I had studied. The questions were more about what I was looking for, what I wanted to learn, who is sitting across from us. That is also the experience I have now had with Bolster colleagues in a short time. They are concerned with the person, they do not make assumptions, but want to work in connection in the moment. I am sometimes pulled out of my comfort zone when I come up with a practical question and the conversation takes a different turn because of their questioning, but as a result I learn a lot in a short time.
These real conversations, for me, have to do with authenticity. The job interview was not a conversation with a list to check off, but arose organically, in connection. I could also put away what I had prepared quite immediately. It confused me and excited me in a positive way.
Bolster also says it has a different working method than other consultancy firms, a method that is often about introducing yourself as a person in the workplace, and committing yourself as a person to a strategy. I still have to learn more about these methods because I only started working at Bolster, but this already appealed to me in communication and it has a link to authenticity in the workplace.'
How does Bolster touch authentic leadership when working with their clients?
'It's hard for me to say because I've only had a few sessions with clients. What I know is that they have a concrete set of questions, with which they gather a lot of information about the company, the team and the people. They know how to quickly get to the heart of the matter using their own methods. Where is the stagnation, where is the growth opportunity, what is needed and what is holding them back? It does not stop superficially at how to make a profit, for example. It goes deeper because customers remain fully responsible for their own process. As a result, they connect with the outcome. Bolster stays away from standard questions, imposed routes or advice.'
The separate words authenticity and leadership, can we say that Bolster actually brings them together?
'Yes, I think you achieve more when CEOs, team leaders or managers introduce themselves as people into the workplace, if they dare to look at themselves honestly. That also makes decisions more sustainable because you feel that you are one hundred percent behind them, you can commit to them. Bolster works that way, that is their goal and they are good at it. Bolster also works with the change that I describe in my research into authentic leadership with regard to the situation on a daily basis. Because every customer has a different goal, a different background and context. So my fellow consultants cannot come up with a standard trick. They connect with the context and the leaders they are working with in that moment. In that sense, my research and my workplace certainly overlap.'
You say the conclusion of your research is not yet certain. Can you explain that?
'There is a fascinating discussion going on in the literature about what constitutes authentic leadership. Researchers send letters back and forth about what is correct and what is not, what one person thinks and another thinks. I think that's wonderful, such a lively subject. My goal was to create another vision, not as truth but for other researchers to take with them. I have tried to summarize what all those researchers concluded, and add practice. I hope that all those people will read this and think: “Oh, we can look at it that way too.” More to stimulate, broaden the horizons and think even more deeply. With the future publication we want to bundle the paradoxes we encountered and send them out into the world for further examination. Precisely to stimulate further research by other researchers. Authentic leadership is a much discussed but relatively young concept. Especially because of the much-discussed positive outcomes, which arouses curiosity. I like to be curious and like to contribute to positivity. Also one of Bolster's core values.'
Curious about Jolijn's thesis? You can read it here. Would you like to find out more about this subject or discuss this? Please contact us or come by and taste our delicious coffee.