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Authentic Leadership Theory: The Need-to-Know Concept for MBAs

Leadership and the University of Aberdeen’s new online MBA

This article is sponsored by the University of Aberdeen Business School. Learn more about its new online MBA


Can people be trained to be good leaders, and what constitutes genuine leadership? Troubled by accounting scandals at corporations such as Enron, and Tyco, and riled by the acute mismanagement that culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis, many have begun to pose this type of question with ever greater urgency. Business schools also reassessed their curricula, conscious of their role in shaping future generations of leaders – graduates who they are sure to hope will not become the protagonists of such ill-fated global economic catastrophes.  

The need to restore confidence and optimism in the leadership of corporations and governments is just as important today as it was almost a decade ago. "A leader without integrity, without an ethical base, is going to be seen as too easy to influence, as having no views of their own. We can all think of a very pragmatic politician who will, perhaps, change their mind just to win votes and, as managers, we mustn't fall into that trap," says Mark Whittington, head of the University of Aberdeen Business School.

In its newly launched online MBA, known as the ‘MBA (Global)’, the University of Aberdeen guides students through the theories that underpin leadership. Key among them is something known as ‘authentic leadership theory’, a relatively new approach to management that emphasizes the value of possessing a strong moral code.            

Insights into leadership style from the University of Aberdeen Business School

"I think effective leadership is always about being authentic to who you are, and being authentic to the people you work with…That is about conveying commitment to a goal and project, as well as empathy and support for those you are working with. Those, to me, are the things that make leadership effective," explains Ian Heywood, MBA program director at the University of Aberdeen Business School.

Attempts to define and operationalize the constructs of leader authenticity and inauthenticity go back to the early 1980s. However, it was not until the publication, in 2003, of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value by Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School, that the term, ‘authentic leadership theory’, really began to draw global attention.

"Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. No longer is leadership about developing charisma, emulating other leaders, or looking good externally. Instead, leadership is about inspiring and empowering those you lead," George wrote in 2015. 

George outlines five key characteristics that define an ‘authentic leader’. They are: Knowing yourself; practicing your values and principles; leading with the heart and head; building lasting relationships; and self-discipline.

The University of Aberdeen Business School stresses the importance of authenticity in a person’s leadership style. “I think that when you try to lead from a position where you don't feel as though you're authentic, or it doesn't represent your views or your values, or those of the organization, that's often where leadership goes astray and we get what I often refer to as 'the dark side' of leadership coming out,” says Heywood.

‘Leadership Challenge’ aims to build strong online MBA foundations

"You cannot lead if you do not understand yourself or the impact that you have on others." This is the introductory statement attached to the description of the very first module every online MBA student enrolled on the University of Aberdeen’s MBA (Global) will complete.

That module is called ‘The Leadership Challenge’. Candidates are invited to study the classic theories on leadership and are then asked to embark on a personal exploration of what is, or could be, their own leadership style. Placing self-awareness at the heart of what constitutes authentic leadership, candidates analyze their personal stories. In this way, each participant of the online MBA is encouraged to understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie and to recognize their own key motivations. They should also be able to identify impulses that could, for example, lead to negative leadership behavior. The overarching idea is that University of Aberdeen MBA students develop a greater sense of self-awareness and engage in positive self-regulated behavior.

Self-empowerment and empowering the team are also central tenets of authentic leadership theory. "We need to know where we're coming from, what we're trying to achieve, and where our ethical guidelines are [as well as] what we are not willing to do and where we're not willing to go, because these places are outside of what we believe is the right way to work, to operate and to treat people," explains Whittington.

Ethical and prudent leadership: Preserving the long-term viability of your business

‘The Leadership Challenge’ sets the tone for the rest of the online MBA at the University of Aberdeen Business School and, while the program is delivered entirely online, that first module seeks to pull every participant together, no matter how remote, so that they share their vision of themselves and their views of what constitutes good leadership - module one therefore serves as the perfect icebreaker.

The teaching of authentic, ethical and prudent leadership is not summarized and shut down once module one is completed, however. This vision, or stance, threads its way in some vein or other throughout the course. ‘Leading and Managing High Performance Teams’ is one such example. Delivered in the second year of the 24-month program, this module teaches online MBA students (now hopefully comfortable with their own leadership style) how to nurture, motivate and effectively lead their teams through performance management, mentoring and coaching.

Authentic leaders are, as diverse investigations seem to demonstrate, more likely to keep their employee satisfaction levels high. Happier employees tend to be those who commit to an organization and put extra effort into their tasks and duties, even if they fall outside of the contractual. In this sense, an 'all for one, one for all' leadership style can actually help preserve the long-time viability of businesses; an outcome every organization ultimately strives for.     


This article is sponsored by the University of Aberdeen Business School

Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

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