Chapter 1: The Challenge of Authentic Leadership

This above all: to thine own self be true, Hamlet, I, iii, 78

Coaching is arguably the most powerful method for developing managers’ capacity for leadership.  From junior to senior managers, organisations need individuals who can shape and realise success, drawing on their ability to influence, inspire, collaborate, manage, and above all, lead.  The challenge of developing such qualities is that they cannot be simply learned from a textbook or workshop.   If leadership is to be truly effective, managers must be authentic.  Their acts of influence must be grounded in self-awareness, confidence and creativity, and their engagement with others must empower and motivate.  The development of such qualities demands that managers develop their self-understanding.

Leadership coaching is uniquely placed to draw out the individual qualities of managers, and to help them to connect their talents productively to the achievement of organisational goals.  Whether the goal is to strengthen interpersonal skills, to build team effectiveness, to enhance influence and impact, or to help managers to adapt quickly to a new role, it is through the reflective environment of leadership coaching that individual qualities can be most effectively nurtured.  By engaging with the individual at a personal level, as well as with their skills and capabilities, coaching can take on the challenge of evoking what I describe as authentic leadership.

In this chapter I explore the challenge of authentic leadership in terms of the paradox between the personal and the organisational, and describe the overarching goal of leadership coaching as needing to work with this essential paradox.  I contrast authentic leadership with two other forms of leadership, defiant and compliant leadership, and consider the significance of these in terms of the performance of managers.  These different types of leadership, and the psychological factors associated with them, provide a framework for understanding the task of leadership coaching.  Against this backdrop I describe the journey of leadership coaching, and in particular the need to work with the personal as well as the practical aspects of change.  I end the chapter by considering the relationship between coaching and therapy, and show that coaching is distinguished in terms of its dual emphasis on personal and organisational goals.

The Paradox of Leadership

In one respect effective leadership stems from managers being attuned with their core values, from reaching inside for the authority that comes from personal awareness and conviction.  To this extent effective leadership must contain a fundamental individuality.  However, in another respect, leadership is fundamentally concerned with the collective, with others and the organisation.  It focuses on the agreed purposes and strategies of the organisation and is concerned with influencing others to achieve group goals.  Thus effective leadership contains two potentially conflicting imperatives.  On the one hand is the imperative for the manager to be ‘true to oneself’, to act out of personal awareness and conviction.  On the other hand is the imperative for the manager to be ‘true to the organisation’, to act in ways that further the needs of the organisation through others.  These potentially conflicting needs form the poles of a paradox, the paradox of leadership (Figure 1).

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It could be argued that sometimes a manager’s individual drives are perfectly aligned with those of the organisation, that there is no tension or paradox between the personal and the organisational.  Such an idea is as appealing as that of romantic love, where the needs and desires of one person are perfectly matched to the needs and desires of another.  But as we all know, this is an ideal.  To sustain a real relationship takes conscious effort.  In the world of real managers exerting influence in real organisations there is always a tension between managers’ needs and motives and those of the organisation, or at a more immediate level, between managers and the individuals or groups they are seeking to influence.  Some examples of tensions between the personal and the organisational are shown in Table 1.

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For example, a manager wishes to express leadership through understanding and motivating others, but the organisation expects a manager to focus on the task aspects of achieving results.  Or, a manager wants to find a balance between work and personal time, but the organisation needs committed people, and views the issue of work/life balance as showing a lack of commitment.  The paradox of leadership is that, as an act of influence, its effectiveness depends on how managers handle this tension.

Authentic Leadership

The most effective leadership is the result of managers holding the tension between personal goals and those of the organisation, and finding a conscious and creative solution that can arise out of the paradox of leadership1.  It is based on a marriage of individual expression to organisational need, and is creative in the sense that neither the needs of the individual nor of the organisation are sacrificed (Figure 2).

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Authenticity implies someone whose whole way of being, doing and relating is concordant with their beliefs and values.  It implies a real depth of awareness about themselves, and a willingness and capacity to express themselves openly and boldly.  Most of us can relate to the idea of authenticity; the hope or experience that our talents and drives are being expressed in our work lives; that the attunement between our abilities and what we do, will yield success and appropriate rewards.

But for the manager seeking to influence others, personal authenticity is not enough.  Authenticity must be connected with the need to guide others in their actions or opinions in a way that is attuned to the organisation.  The success of authentic leadership is that it carries both personal conviction and an attunement with the organisation.  Managers’ efforts to influence others are more motivational, more inspirational, and more practically useful, because their authentic behaviours and communications are concordant with the values and expectations of the organisation.

The creativity in authentic leadership is evident in the solutions that managers develop to address the tensions between personal and organisational needs.  Authentic leadership does not imply making a compromise, where neither personal nor organisational goals are fully satisfied, but rather with shaping new possibilities for individuals and for the organisation.  It is the capacity of managers to sustain the paradox long enough, and so to allow new ideas and possibilities to emerge, that gives rise to the creative solutions of authentic leadership (Table 2).

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Authentic Leadership is Conscious Leadership

The challenge of authentic leadership is that it demands awareness; self-awareness, awareness of others, and organisational awareness.  Such awareness provides the basis for conscious leadership, where managers are able to examine their motives and make conscious judgements.  Furthermore, they are able to identify unhelpful defences or reactions in themselves; perhaps their tendency to control or dominate based on a fear of failure; perhaps a fear of conflict and a desire to appease; perhaps an excessive competitiveness that leads to distrust; perhaps a tendency to be insular that seems detached and uninspiring.  Self-awareness enables managers to identify personal drives that are less distorted by unconscious bias.  In authentic leadership this self-awareness is coupled to an awareness of others.  Curiosity about what motivates others, a capacity to understand and value the differences between self and others, and an awareness of how motivations of individuals, groups and teams can be harnessed to the goals of the organisation.  Authentic leadership achieved through the sustaining of paradox depends on conscious awareness.


Case Study: Roger

Roger was a senior manager in a major pharmaceutical company, with global responsibility for the marketing and product licensing strategy for a portfolio of products. Within Roger’s therapeutic area the company’s research pipeline was not promising, and he was charged with identifying and licensing one or more products from other companies. However, despite the identification of a number of potential licensing compounds, on three previous occasions the company had failed to persuade the licenser to go ahead with them. On each occasion the licenser had chosen a competitor. During this time Roger was receiving leadership coaching as part of the management development offerings within the company. He used the coaching to examine how his conscious leadership could have a more positive impact on the licensing of a new compound.  He recognised that he was good at networking inside and outside the organisation, and that he evoked a strong loyalty from his team.  However, in his role as a strategic director he felt that the organisation expected him to be an outstanding strategist, and he had learned to behave as if this capability was a genuine strength.  He had worked hard at writing his own strategy papers, and for the ‘pitch’ to prospective licensers he had slaved over his marketing presentations.  Members of his team were asked to summarise aspects of background information for these presentations, but were not invited to contribute to the wider strategic pitch.  In his leadership, Roger was trying to conform to the organisations need for a strategic leader, and was loosing sight of his genuine strengths.  Furthermore, he was failing to achieve the organisation’s goal of licensing a new compound.

Leadership coaching enabled Roger to develop his self-awareness.  He realised that he had built his ambition on the belief that to be a leader he would have to be a visionary.  He had denied to himself the thought that strategic creativity was not a strength for him, and had unwittingly excluded other team members from helping to develop his strategies.  In coaching he realised that he needed to play to his authentic strengths; to use his motivational skills to harness the creativity of his team members in developing the strategic story.  Then, he could use his excellent interpersonal, networking and presentation skills to bring together the diverse stakeholders within his company, and to co-ordinate a more coherent and convincing case for a licenser.  When he did this for the next licensing compound that became available his company won the contract.  Furthermore, Roger was widely acknowledged to have been the architect of the successful licensing deal.

Roger’s personal insights about his true strengths and weaknesses provided the basis for a piece of authentic leadership.  Whilst he tried unconsciously to fit in with the apparent organisational need for him to be a strategist, his leadership was flawed.  It was only when he became more aware, and held the tension between his personal strengths and qualities and the needs of the organisation, that he was able to create his own distinctive, productive, and authentic style of leadership.


Defensive or Reactive Forms of Leadership

Many managers do not possess the awareness of self and others that is necessary for authentic leadership.  Their leadership style is unconsciously shaped by their personal biases: their implicit mindsets, automatic reactions, and defences based on past experiences.  These biases are not necessarily bad; indeed they have usually contributed to their achievements.  For instance, a manager driven to succeed due to a competitive upbringing can be highly valued in any organisation that needs an unswerving achievement focus.  However, the limitation to their leadership comes from its lack of flexibility.  Without awareness there is no basis for making choices about how to lead according to circumstance.  There is no perspective for examining personal motives and holding them in tension with organisational needs and challenges.  The manager’s style is relatively programmed and unchanging, and will only continue to be successful if the organisational context is relatively unchanging as well.

A manager’s lack of awareness of self and others leads to an unconscious polarisation of the paradox of leadership, a collapsing of the tension between individual needs and organisational needs (Figure 3).  The direction of this polarisation, either towards the manager’s personal agenda, or towards the apparent organisational agenda, gives rise to two defensive forms of leadership, defiant leadership and compliant leadership.

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Defiant Leadership

Defiant leadership occurs when there is a collapse of the paradox towards the manager’s personal needs.  These personal needs are unconscious, or there is an attempt to ignore or disguise personal doubts and uncertainties.  This style of leadership is defiant in the sense that the manager behaves in a way that implicitly says, ‘this is me, so take it or leave it’; there is minimal accommodation of their needs to those of the organisation.    Underpinning defiant leadership is a fear of failure, or a guardedness about admitting to vulnerability, and these unconscious fears are rooted in the manager’s past experiences.

You can probably think of managers in organisations whose style of leadership is defiant.  They have risen to senior levels as a result of their energy and apparent strength of personal conviction.  Their leadership style is powerful to the extent that it is underpinned by their unconscious personal agendas, and they are driven to impose their view of what needs to be done on others.  However, their leadership is limited because they are unaware of, or ignore, the impact they have on others.  They are commonly experienced as controlling, and tend to evoke competitiveness, resistance or unimaginative obedience.  Defiant leadership is ineffective to the extent that it fails to evoke the voluntary creativity and excellence of others.

Defiant Leadership and Personality

Personality profiles are sometimes used as an excuse for a manager’s defiant leadership.  For example, a manager may use the information from a personality test, which indicates a propensity to control others in an extravert and structured way, as proof that their behaviour is inevitable – as if authenticity was simply being true to their personality profile regardless of consequences.  In leadership coaching a personality profile can be very useful, since it provides a basis for managers to understand their preferred styles.  However, authentic leadership demands that this personal awareness be held in tension with an understanding of their impact on others, and a consideration of how this impact helps or hinders the achievement of organisational goals.  Awareness about personality preferences provides a basis for choice rather than a vindication of behaviour regardless of impact.


Case Study: Elizabeth

Elizabeth was head of business development in an international company operating within a thriving service industry.  She was a highly successful sales person and was competent at managing her extensive network of external contacts.  However, her relationships with her colleagues and team members were strained.  Although she was valued for her energy, determination and business acumen, interpersonally they found her abrasive and dismissive.  She had received substantial feedback through the years about her development needs, and had attended interpersonal skills training courses. However, she did not really believe she needed to change, and would blame her colleagues for being too sensitive.  She had achieved her success by being tough and individualistic and was strongly resistant to change, even though the chief executive was doubtful about promoting her onto the board.  Her defiant leadership, that had brought her a degree of career success, was now limiting her further progress.


Compliant Leadership

At the other extreme there can be a polarisation of the paradox towards the requirements of the organisation.  In this case the manager works to develop the knowledge, skills and competencies that are valued by the organisation.  This style of leadership is compliant in the sense that managers have learned to suppress unconsciously their natural styles and qualities in an attempt to be what they perceive the organisation wants from its leaders.  This suppression of personal authenticity is learned through experiences of needing to accommodate to others in the past.  Managers who show compliant leadership have often risen to middle and senior management positions where they are considered to be steady and reliable – a ‘safe pair of hands’.   They are well attuned to the present needs of the organisation, responding effectively to challenges and supporting the status quo.  However, an apparent lack of spontaneity or freedom of expression can limit their leadership.  The suppression of their personal preferences can lead to a kind of competent blandness, manifesting as a failure to motivate or inspire others, or a lack of imagination in their approach to new problems.

Compliant Leadership and Management

The skills and qualities required for effective leadership are often distinguished from those required for effective management.  Whilst leadership is concerned with inspiring and influencing others, management is concerned with planning, organising, directing and controlling; with achieving results by following prescribed activities and by maintaining behaviours within prescribed limits.  Compliant leadership is similar to effective management, where the supervision and direction of effective routines is maintained.  If a manager is working with a group of highly motivated staff whose personal needs are closely aligned with those of the organisation, and where existing procedures are effective, then the need for authentic leadership is at a minimum.  In this circumstance compliant leadership may be adequate.  But if there is need to develop new approaches, to motivate staff, or to respond to changing circumstances, then there is a need for authentic leadership.


Case Study: Peter

Peter was an experienced manager who, following a merger, had been appointed to, and had chaired, a senior executive team.  His maturity of style and gravitas suited the role, and he enjoyed co-ordinating the contributions of his fellow directors, following-up on agreed actions, and reporting regularly to the chief executive.  However after a year in the role there was a reshuffle and Peter found himself left out of the executive team.  Peter’s demotion was a result of his compliant leadership.  Whilst he was considered efficient and productive in the role, he had failed to inject the urgency, passion and determination necessary to meet the challenges of the organisation at that time.  The organisation needed to become revitalised.  To achieve that it needed a quality of leadership that was less constrained by the established protocols of the past.