Sub-theme 72: The Paradox of the Positive: Challenging Authenticity for a More Critical, Inclusive, and Emancipatory Leadership

Marian Iszatt-White
Lancaster University, United Kingdom
Brigid Carroll
University of Auckland, New Zealand
Steve Kempster
Lancaster University, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

As noted in the Call for the 37th EGOS Colloquium the accomplishment of inclusivity in organizations – if it is possible at all – will require us to question traditional forms of organizing and may necessitate the creation of new ones. A key component of traditional organizational design is the need for leadership and leaders to set direction, inspire action and model desirable practices. This sub-theme aims to explore the role (positive or otherwise) of authentic leadership in reshaping organizations for the good, and in encouraging inclusivity in the workplace. More broadly, it questions the usefulness of the range of positive superordinates to leadership that have come into vogue in recent years.
The development of authentic leadership was explicitly positioned as a response to a troubled world and a loss of faith in previous forms of leadership, said to have resulted in an ‘ethical corporate meltdown’ (May et al., 2003: 247). Its openly functionalist, unitarist and instrumentalist goal, however, was to delineate a style of leadership capable of producing measurable organizational outcomes, rather than to address more pluralistic agendas. Its forceful positioning by the close-knit coterie of largely US authors who developed the construct has made it largely resistant to philosophical challenges from existentialist (Algera & Lips-Wiersma, 2012), psychoanalytic (Costas & Taheri, 2012) and other (Ladkin & Taylor, 2010) traditions. At the same time, the ‘loaded’ (Antonakis, 2018) definition of authenticity – that is, a definition that includes the outcomes it is seeking to deliver in a way that is positively and morally valenced – that stems from the ideological agenda surrounding authentic leadership, has resulted in tautologies and circular theorizing.
The operationalization of the construct has also been problematic. The four-component ALQ psychometric (Walumbwa et al., 2008) has been widely promulgated (and accepted) despite concerns as to whether such a reductionist instrument could comprehensively capture the complexities of what it means to be authentic in a leadership position. The perceived robustness of the construct has suffered as a result of the retraction of a number of quantitative papers on methodological grounds. More nuanced, qualitative critiques of authentic leadership, mostly from European authors, have been largely ignored by mainstream scholars, with the result that practitioner perception has continued to see authentic leadership as something unproblematic and aspirational. The result has been to arguably reduce authenticity from a potential ‘central organizing principle’ (Driscoll & Wiebe, 2007: 334) of leadership studies to a mere ‘technique’ (Algera & Lips-Wiersma, 2012: 120).
There is clearly a need for more critical attention to be given to the notion of authenticity in leadership, and to the purposes to which this and other forms of ‘positive’ (Avolio & Gardner, 2005) leadership are put. Work has already begun seeking to develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be authentic as a leader, grounded in rich, qualitative data. This includes a repositioning of authenticity as underpinned by ‘fidelity to purpose’ (Kempster et al., 2018) rather than ‘relational transparency’ (Walumbwa et al., 2008) and a call to interrogate the role of authenticity in a new, post-truth, world order (Iszatt-White et al., 2019). A systematic review of the authentic leadership literature (Iszatt-White & Kempster, 2018) proposed a thorough regrounding and (re)understanding of authenticity in leadership, involving a return to its existential roots and an exploration of its practical enactment, as a counterpoint to the previous tendency to sacrifice complexity in favour of easy operationalization. Nyberg and Sveningsson (2014) question the assumption that an authentic leader’s ‘true self’ is morally good – that authenticity implies an ‘internalized moral perspective’ (Walumbwa et al., 2008: 95) – and explore whether acting according to your perceived ‘real self’ necessarily leads to good outcomes either personally or organizationally. Work by Gardiner (2016) – that traces the ways in which authenticity unfolds within specific relational contexts at different moments in time, and suggests that authentic leadership, as presently constituted, promotes social conformity – is particularly pertinent to issues of inclusivity.
It is the premise of this sub-theme that this growing body of work needs to turn its attention to a more fundamental interrogation of what ‘good’ leadership is for, whether authenticity is a useful superordinate for understanding and theorizing our aspirations for such leadership, and whether there is a need for a more critical, inclusive and emancipatory leadership formulation to fill this role. Specifically, we ask whether authenticity – whether moral or not – is likely to promote organizational trust and bring forth a restructuring of organizational life that encompasses inclusivity for all.
In addressing this issue, we draw attention to the apparent disconnect between theory and practice in relation to authentic leadership and the need to develop a more robust theory/practice connection through a thorough examination of the philosophical underpinnings of authenticity. We are fully open to the potential for this examination to conclude that ‘authenticity’ as a superordinate term is not fit for purpose and that our aspirations for leadership as a unifying and inclusive force in our organizations need to be directed elsewhere.


  • Algera, P.M., & Lips-Wiersma, M. (2012): “Radical authentic leadership: Co-creating the conditions under which all members of the organization can be authentic.” The Leadership Quarterly, 23 (1), 118–131.
  • Antonakis, J. (2018): “Charisma and the ‘new leadership’.” In: J. Antonakis & D.V. Day (eds.): The Nature of Leadership. London: SAGE Publications, 56–81.
  • Avolio, B.J., & Gardner, W.L. (2005): “Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly, 16 (3), 315–338.
  • Costas, J., & Taheri, A. (2012): “‘The return of the primal father’ in Postmodernity? A Lacanian analysis of authentic leadership.” Organization Studies, 3 3(9), 1195–1216.
  • Driscoll, C., & Wiebe, E. (2007): “Technical spirituality at work: Jacque Ellul on workplace spirituality.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 16 (3), 334–348.
  • Gardiner, R. (2016): “Gender, authenticity and leadership: Thinking with Arendt.” Leadership, 12 (5), 632–637.
  • Iszatt-White, M. (2012): “Leadership as emotional labour: So what’s new?” In: M. Iszatt-White (ed.): Leadership as Emotional Labour: Management and the ‘Managed Heart’. London: Routledge, 14–36.
  • Iszatt-White, M., Carroll, B., Gardiner, R., & Kempster, S. (2019): “Do we need authentic leadership? Interrogating authenticity in a new world order.” Leadership, 15 (3), 398–401.
  • Iszatt-White, M., & Kempster, S. (2019): “Authentic leadership: Getting back to the roots of the ‘root construct’?” International Journal of Management Reviews, 21 (3), 356–369.
  • Kempster, S., Iszatt-White, M., & Brown, M. (2019): “Authenticity in leadership: Reframing relational transparency through the lens of emotional labour.” Leadership, 15 (3), 319–338.
  • Ladkin, D., & Taylor, S.S. (2010): “Enacting the ‘true self’: Towards a theory of embodied authentic leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly, 21 (1), 64–74.
  • May, D.R., Chan, A.Y.L., Hodges, T.D., & Avolio, B.J. (2003): “Developing the moral component of authentic leadership.” Organizational Dynamics, 32 (3), 247–260.
  • Nyberg, D., & Sveningsson, S. (2014): “Paradoxes of authentic leadership: Leader identity struggles.” Leadership, 10 (4), 437–455.
  • Walumbwa, F., Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Wernsing, T., & Peterson, S. (2008): “Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure.” Journal of Management, 34 (1), 89–126.
Marian Iszatt-White is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Lancaster University Management School, United Kingdom, and Director of the School’s Doctoral Programmes. She has published four books, including a leadership textbook and an edited volume on leadership as emotional labour. Her current research interests relate to the practice turn within leadership, and particularly the performance of emotional labour and the need to appear (and feel) authentic. Marian’s work aims to re-ground the authentic leadership construct from a practice perspective to re-establish it as ‘fit for purpose’.
Brigid Carroll is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management and International Business at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work brings a criticality to issues of power, resistance and identity in the leadership and leadership development domains and draws on a range of narrative, discourse and interaction methodologies. Brigid has co-edited three books on responsible, critical and contemporary leadership research and published in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Organization’, and ‘Management Learning and Leadership’.
Steve Kempster is Professor of Leadership Learning and Development at Lancaster University Management School, United Kingdom, and Director of the Lancaster Leadership Collaboratory. He has published broadly in articles, chapters and five books on leadership learning, leadership authenticity, leadership of purpose and responsible leadership.