Authentic leadership: a critical literature review
The literature about authentic leadership seems to be fragmented, there are several conceptions and theoretical models of authentic leadership, which may be potentially contradictory (Gardner et al., 2011). Alvesson et al. (2019) criticised most of these conceptions of authentic leaderhsip as they seem to be tautological, which means the antecedents of authentic leadership are also the results of it. The concept of authentic leadership itself was even questioned by Iszatt-White et al. (2019) as it was seen conflicting with leadership effectiveness. However, leaving these two exceptions aside, due to the practical necessity to choose a benchmark for this research, the most widely recognised definition of authentic leadership, which the majority of the twenty-five articles I have read refer to, seems to be the one given by Walumbwa et al. (2008, p.94) “[…] as a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development” reported by Semedo et al. (2019). This is the definition I would also take into consideration, as this model identifies four pillars of authentic leadership which might be more easily translated into practical behaviours. Semedo et al. (2019) explain these four dimensions. Self-awareness means that leaders know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses and the nature of their multiple selves (Ibarra, 2003) as well as the impact they have on others and the perception that their followers have of them. For this reason leaders are also capable of reassessment by exposing themselves to others and receiving feedback (Kernis, 2003; Walumbwa et al., 2008). Relational transparency means that leaders share information, reflections and feelings when interacting with their followers interpersonally. They also avoid inappropriate emotional expressions (Avolio et al.,2004; Shamir and Eilam, 2005). Internalized moral perspective means that leaders have high standards of ethical conduct and try and live up to them, choosing to behave in compliance with their moral values rather than being lead by any external pressure coming from the group, the organization or society (Gardner et al., 2005; Avolio and Gardner et al., 2005; Walumbwa et al., 2008). Balanced information processing means that leaders try and analyse objectively all relevant information before taking a decision, and decisions are made in a fair way (Kernis, 2003; Gardner et al., 2005; Walumbwa et al., 2008).
Given this definition and model of authentic leadership, what is the followers' experience of authentic leadership like? This question is worth asking, as it seems to point to a gap in the literature.
My literature review is based on twenty-five articles, among which approximately twenty were peer-reviewed. I have searched them all on Google Scholars, on www.academia.edu, which is a website of practitioners, and on the University of Sunderland library website. During my meta-search I devised the following key words: 'authentic leadership AND employee productivity', 'authentic leadership AND followership', 'authentic leadership in the corporate sector'. After reading these twenty-five articles, I have come to the conclusion that academics and scholars so far seem to have paid little attention to followers when analysing authentic leadership and here are three major themes which may be evidence supporting my position.
First of all, many writers underline the importance of the leader-follower relationship (Trevino et al., 2000; Walumbwa et al., 2011; Gabriel, 2015; Thiel et al., 2018; Owens et al., 2019). Dimovski et al. (2012) and Azanza et al. (2018) refer to it as positive modeling. Maximo et al. (2019) call it leader-member exchange relationship and they refer to Blau's social exchange theory (1964) explaining how followers may be inspired by ethical leaders to act up to the desired expectations. Some other writers like Zhou et al. (2014) also refer to Bandura's social learning theory (1977) focusing on learning through observation and imitation. In this respect, Thiel et al. (2018) proved that leadership's effectiveness depends on the number of collaborators a leader has: the bigger the latter, the less effective the former, since it demands energy, costs, and time to build a relationship with a collaborator.
Despite this allegedly unquestionable concept that the relationship between leader and follower is fundamental, most of the writers pointed to the central role of the leader and all the training which should be implemented to increase leaders' authenticity (Rego et al. 2011, Nasab et al., 2019, Miao et al., 2018). However, just two researchers give the followers a role of primary importance in their research. Sidani et al. (2018) advance a conception of authentic leadership which is not style-based but it is the result of a followers' moral legitimation process. Still, their theoretical model of authentic leadership should be experimented and empirically tested. The second exceptional writer in this respect is Gabriel (2015) who carried out a field research and in-depth interviews highlighting the experience that followers might do with their ethical leaders and, for example, he found out that leadership is recognised by followers just when they feel they are cared for by their leaders. Consequently, Gabriel's approach to leadership should be developed further.
Secondly, many writers point to the positive impact of authentic leadership on employee productivity and, consequently, on organisational targets (Liu et al., 2018, Saeed et al., 2019, Zhou et al., 2014, Miao et al., 2018, Nasab et al., 2019, Laguna et al., 2019, Mubarak et al., 2018, Rego et al., 2011, Xiong et al., 2014, Azanza et al., 2018, Maximo et al., 2019). One questionable assumption which lies beneath this belief might be that leadership is exercised by managers or people at higher levels in the hierarchy on their followers. Instead, authentic leadership might also be exercised at the same level across departments which might be competing with each other within the same company. Some researchers even consider the importance of being an ethical manager beside being an ethical person, as it might be necessary to express publicly one's own ethical views taking a clear position regarding ethical issues at work, so that all employees can get a perception of their ethical standing and not just the ones interacting closely with those managers (Trevino et al., 2000).
If the role of the authentic leader is crucial to improve employee productivity and it seems it is convenient to have authentic leadership in place, still the followers' experience and perspective have not been investigated with the same ardour as their leaders' by the researchers mentioned in the above paragraph. Therefore, authentic leadership might be considered crucial just in terms of profit and not in terms of attention to the person and it seems as if employees were passive targets who might be treated instrumentally.
Last but not least, most of the researchers, who will be indicated below, used a quantitative approach through the submission of questionnaires. The choice of questionnaires as the core research method prevents authors from getting narratives about respondents' feelings, emotions, cognition or meta-cognition dynamics (Saunders, 2012). For this reason, they could not dive into followers' life and experiences. On the contrary, they operationalised variables and they studied the causal relationship between these variables on very big samples of respondents, with the view to increase the validity and generisability of their results. Specifically, Semedo et al. (2018) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on affective commitment through happiness at work. Liu et al. (2018) and Saeed et al. (2019) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on subordinates' behaviour. Zhou et al. (2014) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on innovation through employees' positive emotions. Miao et al. (2018) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on specific organisational objectives through emotional intelligence. Nasab et al. (2019) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on employee performance through the mediating role of organisational commitment. Laguna et al. (2019), Mubarak et al. (2018) and Rego et al. (2011) stated respectively the positive impact of authentic leadership on employees' attitude to innovation and on creativity through psychological capital. Xiong et al. (2014) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on group performance and collective efficacy. Azanza et al. (2018) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on salespeople's outcomes and development. Maximo et al. (2019) stated the positive impact of authentic leadership on work engagement through psychological safety and trust in supervisors.
In conclusion, my question stated at the beginning of the critical literature riview seems to be worth asking, considering the evidence given of so little research done on authentic leaders' followers. Out of twenty-five articles, only Gabriel (2015) gave a voice to followers and looked into how they perceive their leaders and into what followers go through emotionally when interacting with authentic leaders. This qualitative research approach seems to be interesting to illuminate subordinates' experience and get rich insights about the relationship between authentic leadership and followers. The choice of taking a follower-centred perspective seems to be justified so as to compensate that vast majority of quantitative research papers which have populated the literature in the last decade. It could throw light on any other possible benefits that authentic leadership might bring to followers, beside the ones already stated in the literature and reported in this review. It could help us understand if authentic leadership could be exercised by followers too and it could teach us the value of human life itself as an end and not as a means.