What is Authentic Leadership?

This blog comes from the principal of the British School Muscat in Oman, Kai Vacher (@PrincipalMuscat). Leadership has never been a hotter topic.

Distrust of those at the top seems to be at an all-time high, with politicians and high-profile chief executives repeatedly found to be lacking integrity. People want to be led by someone real; an authentic leader.

But what does that mean? How do authentic leaders lead and behave? How can we distinguish the authentic leader from the tyrant?

These questions are important when we are looking for the leaders of a country, but they are just as crucial when we think about the leaders of our schools.

To thine own self, be true

The notion of authentic leadership is not new. Shakespeare was pressing the importance of leaders driven by ethical and honest morals more than 400 years ago.

Whether it’s King Lear’s ego dividing his kingdom and family, or Macbeth’s maniacal hunger for power causing his own tragic downfall, we can see similar storylines playing out in the contemporary world.

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Shakespeare coined this definition of authentic leadership in Hamlet. There are many ways in which to interpret these words of wisdom. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps expressed the notion more clearly to the modern ear when he said: “When what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony – that is happiness.”

Both Gandhi and Shakespeare seem to be commenting on the need for your internal monologue to match your external actions if you are to achieve an honest, ethical and practical leadership style.

Authentic leadership also leads to trust which is so important, as there is evidence that we are trusting our leaders less and less today.

For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 report found that 6 in 10 respondents felt political leaders didn’t listen to them.  Without such trust, there will inevitably be an impact on how effective we are able to work and lead our schools.

A new model for School Leadership

A report entitled Navigating the Educational Moral Maze, published in January by the Ethical Leadership Commission (ELC), offers some hope for a brighter future.

The report contains a Framework for Ethical Leadership that resonates closely with the notion of authentic leadership. It is designed to tackle the concerns around a lack of guiding principles for ethical leadership in education.

The ELC confirms that ideals of “strong and robust” leadership are less important than a “wise and just” style, with leaders “driven as much by a vision of a good society as by competitive advantage”.

Despite this, in England – there is a myriad of reasons why being an authentic leader is not easy: the strict accountability systems in place in the current education system, increasing funding pressures and the recruitment crisis all make it harder to practise and develop authenticity.

And so what steps can leaders to take on their journey towards greater authenticity?

Questions for Reflection

As a facilitator on the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) Programme for Aspiring Headteachers, I’ve developed a method of self-assessment that allows aspiring Headteachers to reflect on their leadership practice and compare it to that of a model authentic leader.

We use four key questions, based on research on authentic leadership, underpin the assessment method and encourage participants to look introspectively at their leadership behaviours.

If you have chance, I would really encourage you to take some time to reflect on these questions and in the coming week and explore whether in Gandhi’s words of wisdom, whether what you think, what you say and do are in harmony.

– How self-aware are you? Do you know your strengths, limitations and what’s unique about you? In order to be truly authentic, leaders must work hard at understanding and developing themselves.

– Have you got ambition and humility (sometimes termed humbition), in equal measure?  In Good to Great (2002), Jim Collins highlights that organisations that go from good to great are most typically led by leaders who demonstrated the key characteristics of what Collins termed “level 5 leadership”; personal humility and a professional will to do the right thing.

– Do your intentions match with your actions? Do you walk the talk, but with a limp? To be seen to have integrity, your deeds must match your words.

– Do you lead with your heart or your mind? To what extent do you listen to and follow your intuition? Or do just you follow your school’s objective data?

One of the most important things that I’ve learned since leaving Headship is that no School Leader should have to live their life as a lesser version of themselves, for fear of what others might think or say, if they really saw you.

Yes, the current education landscape, can at times feel harsh, brutal and a very unsafe place to show up as our True selves, but it is necessary. Our schools, our young people need to be led by leaders who understand, as in the words of American author Brene Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.’

I know that this is hard. One of the hardest things for me as a Head teacher was finding the courage to ask for the help that I needed. What I needed back then was someone impartial who really understood the challenges I was experiencing. I needed someone with whom I could “drop the leadership mask” and talk openly and honestly about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings I was having in my role.

And it is the same today. If our leaders are to sustain consistently high levels of effectiveness amidst the growing complexity of the role, this form of support is not just helpful – it’s vital.

Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.

Yet School Leaders remain woefully under-supported and as a result, many are left without anyone to turn to when they are in need of support, clarity, guidance or even just some encouragement to keep going.

That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls to ensure that no School Leader finds themselves in the same situation as I was in as a Head.

These calls provide a safe, confidential space for School Leaders to:

– Talk through the challenges they are currently facing
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help overcome problems
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
– Gain clarity around how best to move forward

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


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