Authentic Leadership: A Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

The purpose of this paper is to interpret the historical meanings conveyed by Barnard's classic works and use them for theorizing about authenticity of leaders in executive roles. Our analysis employs an interpretative logic for meanings of historical ideas proposed by Bevir. As an outcome of this analysis, we identify the conditions that contribute to the failure, crisis, tragedy, and/or success of leader authenticity. In addition, we discuss practical and research implications of the proposed framework.


Oftentimes when considering ideas we believe to be novel, we see that they have, in many instances, already received considerable discourse from scholars who have preceded us. Although the nomenclature changes, the gist of the ideas is frequently quite similar. Looking back at the meanings underlying these ideas will provide a more firm theoretical foundation for these "novel" concepts. Instead of starting from a blank slate, we can use these reflective thoughts as a spring board to a more thorough understanding of concepts of interest.

The concept of authenticity (i.e., the idea of "being oneself or being "true to oneself') is becoming a central focus of responsible behavior of leaders in post-Enron era. While in ancient Greece authenticity was ascribed only to leaders who "posited themselves" (Ferrara, 1998: 15), leader authenticity is described today more broadly as leader resolve to take responsibility for personal freedom and organizational and communal obligations so that leaders could make choices that would help them construct their selves as a moral individuals. In management and organization studies, this authentic capacity of a leader to balance responsibilities for private freedom and public obligation was first devised as the litmus test of executive quality by Chester Barnard (1938). When we reacquaint ourselves with Barnard's seminal ideas, we recognize that issues of leader authenticity are always salient--it is just that we accentuate them during the times when major moral shocks occur in the corporate world.

In this paper, we examine the philosophical and psychological traditions in conceptualizing authenticity and explore how Barnard's classic works convey historical meanings of authentic executive leadership. To survey these traditions and interpret these meanings, we use a form of interpretative logic proposed by Bevir (1999) and apply it to tease out Barnard's key ideas of relevance for theorizing on authenticity of executive leadership. The approach is helpful in the identification of the conditions that contribute to myriad outcomes (e.g., failure, crisis, tragedy, and/or success) of executive authenticity in the leadership role.

Issues of executive authenticity are quite salient in the post-Enron times, just as they were salient to Barnard in the post-Depression era. By revisiting management classics (i.e., the classic works of our past) like Barnard's research and by exploring the cultural meanings of management phenomena, we strive to develop an alternative, post-hoc approach to inquiry of executive authenticity, which may facilitate new "possibilities of reinventing theory, reinterpreting evidence, and rediscovering voices and issues" (Kilduff & Dougherty, 2000: 778).

Interpretative Logic of Deriving Historical Meanings from Management Classics

Management phenomena may convey specific cultural meanings, as shown by the evolving research on management fads and fashions (Abrahamson, 1991). The only way to acquire knowledge of how management phenomena evolve as meaningful cultural phenomena is through analyzing historical works. In particular, the discipline of the history of ideas deals with studying cultural meanings from a historical perspective, as historians try to interpret cultural phenomena in terms of historical processes (Bevir, 2000).

Historians of ideas face the daunting challenge of determining what logic (i. …