CASE STUDY AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP
Aletha Ross, Andre Loney, Bethany Carpenter, Nirmin El-Haj
In early 2010, Lt Col Brown took command of an intelligence squadron on an Air Force base located overseas. The squadron was part of a tenant unit, this means that it did not belong to the Fighter Wing that ran the base. Therefore, the squadron was often estranged from the other Air Force members who were stationed at the same base due to isolation and the classification of the mission. Many of this squadron’s workers worked unique shifts which further separated them from the others who worked regular hours. As a result, a divide had developed between the two groups. Lt Col Brown had come from a list of special operations assignments, and so he had never worked a mission like this one before. This highly technical mission with intelligent but socially isolated technicians was far removed from his previous experiences and did not represent what was expected of a Special Forces group. Regardless, he realized the potential of the present situation and began devising a plan for success via gaining a better understanding of himself and his standards and values, gaining a better understanding of his team by listening and analyzing their needs and being downright open, honest and true with them.
With all of these challenges, Lt Col Brown showed he was the ideal fit for the squadron. First, he began personally visiting those working the most inconvenient shifts (in the middle of a weekend night) solely to introduce himself. This proved to them that he understood the big picture, and that regardless of the differences in opinion of the two groups, the shift workers and the day time workers, that it was important for him to support his team to the fullest extent. He then interacted with every Airman in each work station to gain a better understanding of them and their jobs. He asked questions of the Airmen and had them explain to him the intricacies of their very technical work. During this process, Lt Col Brown learned the first names of all the Airmen, and also every Airman’s family members by keeping a white board with pictures in his office of each member for studying. Within two weeks, Lt Col Brown began using first names after the tradition of the special operations community he came from, from the youngest Airman to the highest ranking officers in the squadron. A few weeks later, he decided to bring every Senior Noncommissioned Officer (SNCO) and other officers away from the office in civilian clothes to an offsite leadership for a day to discuss the leadership’s thoughts of the squadron, the goals for the squadron and a path to get there. At this event, he refrained from giving any of his personal opinions on how to solve a situation until after hearing from everyone else in attendance because he knew that as the commander, once his opinions were on the table, he may not get candid opinions that may contradict his.
Soon after the offsite, Lt Col Brown focused his attention on developing squadron identity and pride. He researched the history of the squadron and appointed one of his young officers as squadron historian and he was to publicize this information. His next initiative consisted of commissioning the development of a squadron t-shirt that could be worn in the place of the Air Force PT uniform during bi-weekly squadron workouts. Leadership had now informed him that they had noticed a completely different aura of this squadron soon after him taking command. Morale was at an all-time high and there was a sense of identity and camaraderie that had not been present for quite a while. The biggest result however is that Lt Col Brown's authenticity had earned him the respect and admiration of every member of the squadron. Squadron members developed allegiance to him and as a result would go well above and beyond their norms and undertake all tasks he delegated with the most tremendous zest.
As the squadron developed increasing loyalty to Lt Col Brown, the squadron itself began to change in other tangible areas. As the shift workers' moral increased because they felt valued by Lt Col Brown, the resentment between shift workers and day workers began to dwindle. The squadron began hosting social events such as BBQs and even Friday night trips to a local bar, attendance at these events increased to the highest participation in voluntary events than the squadron had seen for the entire two years of the previous commander. As the events became more popular because of the increased attendance, friction between the two groups lessened because of the social time spent with one another. This, added to the collective sense of identity developed through the historical research on the squadron's legacy created at atmosphere where not only did the members of the squadron want to work for Lt Col Brown, but wanted to work to better the squadron itself. Because of this new focus, the squadron developed two new distinct mission capabilities through projects initiated by members of the squadron. This innovation and the collective work put in to the projects was recognized throughout the Intelligence Community. That year, the squadron was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, an award given by the Air Force for meritorious service and distinctive accomplishments by the unit as a whole. This would not have been possible without the effects caused by the leadership of Lt Col Brown.
There are various definitions of authentic leadership; it is clear that the current scenario demonstrates the interpersonal definition of authenticity (Pennsylvania State University, 2015). That is, authenticity was developed between Lt Col Brown and the Squadron as a result of the relationship they had formed. According to this definition authentic leadership is a two way process that is not only developed as a result of the leader’s efforts, but via the reactions of the followers towards the leader (Northouse, 2015). In the above scenario the interactions that the leader initiated with his followers resulted in mutual trust, openness and loyalty.
Authentic leaders have a deep seated interest in serving others (Northouse, 2015); it is clear that Lt Brown has interest in serving the squad team. For instance, the fact that he “focused his attention on developing squadron identity and pride” demonstrates this variable. Followers want their leaders to be available to them when necessary (Northouse, 2015). While in the beginning the squad felt as though they were separated from the rest, Lt Col Brown changed that by making time to be available to each and every individual in the squad; he came to see them on his time off.
According to the theoretical model of authentic leadership, there are four components of authentic leadership (Northouse, 2015). Relational transparency is one such variable. Relational transparency involves that a leader reveals his/her true self, and shows honestly and openness in their relations with others In the above scenario such honestly is evident in Lt Col Brown “being downright open, honest and true with” his team (Northouse, 2015). Since relational transparency occurs when individuals disclose their internally seeded emotions, motivations, and inclinations; communication is a norm of relational transparency (Northouse, 2015). This open communication was present in the current scenario; for instance, we have learned that the commander was transparent with regards to the mission and his feelings towards it. Also, he was willing to maintain an open communication and discuss what the members in leadership thought about the squadron, its direction, and how to get there.
According to George’s approach, for a leader to be perceived as authentic, he needs to be relational and openly connect with others (Northouse, 2015). Lt Col Brown was willing to be open and honest, disclosing information about himself; this in turn allowed the remainder of the team to share their story with him. He listened to members of the squadron and found out not only about who they were, but also about their family members. He showed interest in their perspectives, which is evident with respect to the fact that he asked Leadership what they thought about the squadron and its direction, and path to success. This reciprocated disclosure generated trust and friendship between the leader and the followers. According to George it is optimal that leaders form a sense of trust with their followers—in turn followers will be prepared and enthusiastic to show commitment and devotion to their leaders (Northouse, 2015). In the current scenario squadron members were loyal to Lt Col Brown and when they needed to be asked to bend over backwards for the mission, they were more than willing to do it for him.
Internalized Moral Perspective
Internal moral perspective is another one of the four factors that make up the foundation for Authentic Leadership. It is a “self-regulatory process, that is governed by moral standards and values that guide behavior, rather than letting outside pressures control them” (Northouse, 2015).
Given the challenging dysfunction of the situation facing Lt Col Brown, he could have responded to the situation in various ways. He could have been outwardly focused on the other occupants of the base and their thoughts and opinions or he could have felt pressured and discouraged by the morale of his squadron. Instead he exhibited the “positive psychological capacity” (PSU, 2015) required by the theoretical approach. He showed “confidence” in taking charge of the mission, “hope” for the relationships he set out to build with the team, “optimism” for a positive outcome as he explained the direction he wanted to go with each member of the squadron and “resilience” in seeing the task through each and every day, despite the challenges he was sure to have faced. His “moral reasoning”, which is the other component for beginning to experience authentic leadership, is what impacted his moral internalized perspective. This emanated from his strong sense of moral standards and values, which we clearly see guided his behavior in all of the ways he developed the unified identity, pride and morale within the squadron. He ultimately transformed the squadron into a different team, through exhibiting his internalized moral perspective.
The next of the four factors that make up the foundation for Authentic Leadership is self-awareness. Self-awareness is "a process in which individuals understand themselves, including their strengths an weaknesses, and the impact they have on others." (Northouse, 2015)
Lt Col Brown showed an acute self-awareness in this scenario in several areas. He knew very early on that he was entering a different community than the one he had led in the past. The mission he was overseeing was highly technical and he knew that he would not be the expert in the technical aspects of the job. He therefore used his efforts to get to know his Airmen on shift to ask them to explain their job to him to build his knowledge base on the technical aspects of the job. This helped him to understand the needs of his people better and allowed him to speak the language. He knew his technical expertise was a weakness coming in to the job and therefore used this to his advantage as a way to get to know his Airmen and build their confidence.
Another area that Lt Col Brown showed self-awareness was in his knowledge of the effect of his position on communication. When conducting the leadership offsite, Lt Col Brown held off on giving his opinions until others had been heard because he knew the effect that rank can have on open dialogue and competing opinions. This allowed him to hear what he needed to hear and opened communication much more than if he had stated what he thought should be done and then asked for opinions. In this, his self-awareness was expanded out past his own personal strengths and weaknesses and included his knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of his command position and others' reactions to it, something that he was new to at the time.
Balanced Processing is also a self-regulatory behavior and can be identified as “an individual’s ability to analyze information objectively and explore other people’s opinions before making a decision” (Northouse, 2015). It is best identified as the creation of a team ideal by a leader structuring his/her views with the beliefs of the other members involved.
As noted, he took the time out to assess himself and combine his thoughts with the needs of the team. By doing so, he cast aside any semblance of an ego-driven plan of attack and created a vision that would allow him to form an engaged squadron. Another prime example of Lt Col Brown’s balance is evidenced by his discussions of the views of the squadron with his officers. In this instance, he assimilated their views with his and allowed the acquiescence between his plans for the squadron and the most widely acceptable course of action. Balanced processing is a huge part of being an authentic leader because it requires the acceptance of ideas that may have challenged the leader’s initial assumptions. Therefore, it ensures the individual stays on the same level as his/her followers which Lt Col Brown personified by visiting his team regardless of the inconvenience imposed on his sleep schedule to reinforce his authentic intentions because he understood the potential for unification.
How the theory relates to performance outcomes
Norman, Avolio, and Luthans (2010) found that leader’s transparency is correlated with the employee’s trust in the leader and positive evaluation of the leader. It is clear that in the current scenario Lt Col Brown was particularly transparent in his relations with the team members. This has directly resulted in his earing “the respect and admiration of every member of the squadron” and in being perceived as particularly effective in the above scenario.
In addition, authentic leadership is likely to result in inclusion, by means of acquiring other’s opinions (Cottrill, Lopez, Hoffman, 2014). For instance, Lt Col Brown was particularly adept at achieving inclusion of his team members; not only did he go out of his way to visit those who felt excluded in order to make them feel included, but he also “refrained from giving any of his personal opinions on how to solve a situation until after hearing from everyone else in attendance”. Such inclusion leads to discretionary behaviors (organizational citizen behaviors) on the part of the team members, where they were willing to go over and beyond their duties and to exert effort (Cottrill, Lopez, Hoffman, 2014). For instance, in the scenario “squadron members were loyal to Lt Col Brown and when they needed to be asked to bend over backwards for the mission, they were more than willing to do it for him”.
In addition, it was mentioned previously that a study by Walmbwa et al. (2008, 2011) established that authentic leadership behavior correlates with a variety of performance outcomes, ranging from supervisor performance evaluations, and work involvement. What’s more, authentic leadership is said to induce trust in followers, which ultimately leads to enhanced organizational performance (Onorato, & Zhu, 2014). Such findings are evident in the fact that “the members of the squadron…wanted to work to better the squadron itself”. What’s more the fact that “the squadron was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award” ultimately signals their superior performance.
Cottrill, Lopez, Hoffman (2014). How authentic leadership and inclusion benefit organizations. Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, 33 (3), p275-292.
Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Onorato, M., Zhu, J. (2014). An Empirical Study on the Relationships between Authentic Leadership and Organizational Trust by Industry Segment. Advanced Management Journal, 79 (1), p26-39.
Pennsylvania State University (2015). Lesson 12: Authentic Leadership. Retrieved fromhttps://cms.psu.edu/section/default.asp?id=201415S1WD%5F%5F%5FRPSY%5F%5F532%5F002
Wang, Sui, Luthans, Wang, and Wu (2012). Impact of authentic leadership on performance: Role of followers' positive psychological capital and relational processes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35 (1), p 5-21
**Note: This case study was taken from a real situation referenced in a paper for PSY 532. Names, dates, and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals written about.