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Authentic Leadership: Not just another fad

Authentic Leadership: Not just another fad

Do you need proof that you as a leader should be aware of your own thoughts and feelings regarding your work and your team? Probably not. But do you know what being aware actually does to improve outcomes? Recent research by Maximo, Stander, and Coxen (the authors) started with that awareness factor and followed its effects on the teams. I summarize What they found, Why this is important, and How to use this research. You can then read the academic journal article if you want to dive deeper at https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v45i0.1612.

WHAT the authors did was survey 244 employees, about 85% team members, and 15% team leaders. The survey covered authentic leadership, work engagement, workplace trust, and psychological safety. The goal was to find if having authentic leadership present affected engagement, trust, and psychological safety. If it indeed affected these personal feelings, then other research supported better organizational outcomes.In other words, the authors wanted to see if they could describe for leaders a way to be a leader that would improve performance. More importantly, they wanted to show leaders the reasons this works.

They did find some of what they were looking for but not everything. In order to better understand what they found, let' take a look at some definitions.

Authentic Leadership. This theory describes how transparent, open, respectful, and moral a leader is. Basically, a leader builds mutually trusting relationships with team members through two-way communication, being a good example, respecting team members, implementing formal and informal reward structures, and assisting followers in improving (both work and non-work related.) This is sometimes called creating a high-quality leader-member exchange relationship (LMX) if you want to know more. The key word is "authentic" in that team members will see through a leader trying to fake these qualities.

Work Engagement. Being engaged at work means:

  • feeling vigorous and strong while at work vs. washed out by the job,
  • believing their work has purpose and is worth dedication, and
  • being absorbed in their work.

An engaged employee loves their work and looks forward to doing their job. They feel that their work is important.

Workplace Trust. Trust is built over time as a leader and follower communicate about the tasks that need doing. A leader who just talks and does not listen does not build that trust. A team member has to feel that they are allowed to speak up, and that they will be taken seriously. Part of this is knowing a leader "has their back" if needed.

Workplace Psychological Safety. Workplace trust plays a part in this. If the trust exists, then safety generally follows in that not only does the team member trust their leader to listen, but that the team member feels safe to discuss their concerns and ideas with the whole team. This means that the leader has created a safe zone for the team at work in the minds of the team members.

Summary of WHAT:

When team members believe their leaders exhibit authentic leadership, they then usually, but not always, exhibit workplace trust in their leaders. They feel trusted and feel trust regarding their leader.

Authentic leadership also is associated with workplace psychological safety, but interestingly not as expected. Psychological safety (team trust) was not significantly associated with workplace trust as found in other studies. This may be explained by the fact that the teams studied were miners where risk-taking (an element of team trust) is not encouraged. So, the association may be work-environment related to a great extent.

Workplace engagement was expected to be directly related to authentic leadership, but it turned out that this was true mostly if workplace trust was also present. In other words, authentic leadership does not always result in trust, and when it doesn't, then workplace engagement is less likely.

WHY this study's results are important is to point out to leaders that being an authentic leader builds better teams. More importantly, it has been shown repeatedly that better teams produce more good outcomes, including higher productivity, employee happiness, lower voluntary turnover, better workplace citizenship, and more.So the importance to a leader is to recognize that behaving certain ways consistently eventually and continually produces positive workplace outcomes. This means the leader succeeds organizationally and usually personally.

How to use this study's results is pretty simple. Study what it takes to be an Authentic Leader and practice what the literature preaches. See my book "How successful teams work…" (https://amzn.to/2RzgeQm on Amazon) for much more about building that important trusting relationship with each team member.

  • Be inclusive with each team member, meaning include them in discussions about the work that needs to be done. Solicit their feedback, even if that will not change what needs to be done and how to do it. It is the listening that makes the difference.
  • Respect each team member for who they are, how they feel, and what might be going on in their lives that affects them. This goes well with being inclusive.
  • Reward team members so they feel important to the work that is being done and important to you, their leader. Rewards are informal and formal, both transactional (money) and transformational (good job!).
  • Assist team members in improving both their work skills directly applicable to the tasks at hand and in ways not directly related. Find out through respectful and inclusive discussions what is important to both you and the team member and make it happen.
  • Be a role model in who you are and how work should be done. Be the leader each team member respects and emulates.

These are personal behaviors in your control. They are personal habits you can form if you try. Use obvious tactics to form these new habits by identifying how you want to act, how you act now, and plan how to change your actions by creating change goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to the change desired, and within time limits.Just as changing how you eat if you want to eat healthier, changing leader behaviors to implement Authentic Leadership is possible and a good idea.


Maximo, N., Stander, M., & Coxen, L. (2019). Authentic leadership and work engagement: The indirect effects of psychological safety and trust in supervisors. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 45, 11 pages. doi: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v45i0.1612 bstract

Orientation: The orientation of this study was towards authentic leadership and its influence on psychological safety, trust in supervisors and work engagement.

Research purpose: The aim of this study was to investigate the influence of authentic leadership on trust in supervisors, psychological safety and work engagement. Another aim was to determine whether trust in supervisors and psychological safety had an indirect effect on the relationship between authentic leadership and work engagement. An additional objective was to determine if authentic leadership indirectly influenced psychological safety through trust in supervisors.

Motivation for the study: Globally, businesses are faced with many challenges which may be resolved if leaders are encouraged to be more authentic and employees more engaged. In this study, investigating the role of trust in supervisors and psychological safety on the relationship between authentic leadership and work engagement is emphasised.

Research design, approach and method: This study was quantitative in nature and used a cross-sectional survey design. A sample of 244 employees within the South African mining industry completed the Authentic Leadership Inventory, Utrecht Work Engagement Scale, Workplace Trust Survey and Psychological Safety Questionnaire.

Main findings: The results indicated that authentic leadership is a significant predictor of both trust in supervisors and psychological safety. This study further found that authentic leadership had a statistically significant indirect effect on work engagement through trust in supervisors.

Practical or managerial implications: The main findings suggest that having more authentic leaders in the mining sector could enhance trust in these leaders. Authentic leadership thus plays an important role in creating a positive work environment. This work environment of authenticity and trust could lead to a more engaged workforce.

Contribution or value-add: Limited empirical evidence exists with regard to the relationship between authentic leadership, work engagement, psychological safety and trust in supervisors. This is particularly true in the mining sector. This study aimed to contribute to the limited number of studies conducted.

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