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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Authentic Leadership and the E-Learning Organization


Because of the nature of the e-learning organization, marked as it is by constant and perpetual metamorphosis, perhaps the most effective leadership strategy is to employ a combination of charismatic, transformational, transactional, distributive, and authentic leadership. Charismatic leadership will mobilize the organization and the leader will communicate a vision that has the potential to come alive in the hearts and minds of the followers. Transformational leadership emphasizes personal as well as organizational change and growth, while transactional lays out the methods and steps to get from point A to point B. Distributive leadership gives rise to a democratic approach to decision-making and an effective assignment of tasks. However, none of these will work - individually or together - without the "glue" of authentic leadership. Authentic leadership can be characterized as a leadership approach that seeks to find solutions to problems and to achieve objectives by emphasizing the capacity to empathize and understand the needs of individuals within the organization.

As the leader demonstrates a deep connection to the followers, she or he engages in an ongoing analytical process which aligns team member talents and abilities with organizational needs. The leader then works with team members to develop a plan that is both goal-oriented and flexible. Such a task requires the leader to possess a complex set of skills, with effective, active listening forming the foundation. It also requires what has been characterized as emotional intelligence.

Later, the leader must demonstrate credibility through showing competence and the ability to set and achieve goals.

To become an authentic leader requires other qualities as well. The leader must demonstrate that he or she

a) Possesses the capacity to feel empathy;

b) Has the ability to self-regulate, thus can control emotions;

c) Is willing to dedicate time, effort, and resources to learning the needs of followers;

d) Maintains an approach that is underlain by a widely understood moral foundation;

e) Can break large goals into small, achievable goals, and is willing to work individually with units to have success;

f) Acknowledges the contributions of individuals, and rewards in a timely and appropriate manner.

It has been pointed out that the organizational climate since the 1990s has been such that employee trust has been eroded as company after company demonstrated itself willing to freeze salaries, cut benefits, lay off divisions, and spend pension funds while giving executives and board members huge bonuses, salary increases and stock options.

In a negative environment where leaders are perceived as selfish, greedy, or indifferent, employee trust in the leader is low to non-existent. In order to re-establish trust, there must be "relational transparency." L. Hughes observes that

"Continual activation of an authentic moral leader's values and ethical standards as part of his or her working concept will promote relational transparency" (Hughes, in Gardner, 2005, p. 391).

Hughes continues to by developing a four-pronged approach to relational transparency. It requires a) setting goals; b) developing a vision or identity; c) setting shared values; d) engaging emotions (Hughes, 2005).

Emotions are essentially those involved in an empathic approach to human relations. Not only does is require active listening, it also stresses tolerance, flexibility, and a willingness to engage humor in response to frustration.

Even if an organizational head is truly empathic, and possesses the values of an authentic leader, employees are likely to view the leader with skepticism, if not outright cynicism. Without a results-centered approach and effective goal-setting so that members of the organization can see that the leader is both sincere and willing to assume personal risk to better the lives of everyone, the leader is likely to be considered manipulative, insincere, and perhaps even dangerously deceptive. Thus, the decision to pursue the authentic leadership approach is not without its perils.

However, once he or she has obtained the support of team members, the authentic leader will help guide the establishment of an environment of authenticity. The authentic environment is characterized by an emphasis on strengths rather than weaknesses, and by the presence of positive reinforcement. Although it can be difficult to win over the hearts and minds of employees, the rewards are worth the effort. One can argue that it is perhaps the only approach that will work in a time of rapid change, employee fear and disenchantment, and an unstable business environment.


Hughes, L. (2005). Developing transparent relationships through humor in the authentic leader-follower relationship. In: W. L. Gardner, B. J. Avolio, and R. O. Walumbwa (Eds). Authentic Leadership Theory and Practice: Origins, Efforts, and Development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science.

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