Action Wheel Leadership

The Authentic Leadership Process

Action Wheel Leadership Site Map

Leadership: From Skills to
Authentic Engagement

by Dr. Robert Terry


Authentic Leadership Process

Is our understanding and practice of leadership in dismal disarray or fertile ferment? As I criss-cross the country, advising and evaluating leadership programs, I come to a paradoxical conclusion - it is both.

The calls for educational leadership programs, and for leadership itself, are incessant and growing in community after community.

Sadly, programs are proliferating, it appears, inversely to a solid grasp of leadership itself.

And, when the "experts" on leadership, either in person or by written word, are called in, the confusion deepens.

Conflicting perspectives abound, remedies escalate, befuddlement and "ad-hocracy" takeover.

Yet, while there is disarray in leadership studies, there is also ferment. I will identify and evaluate the primary perspectives in leadership that are demanding our attention and allegiance. If we can distinguish schools of thought, perhaps we can more thoughtfully set the direction for leadership in our communities [and businesses].

What follows will be a thumbnail sketch of six perspectives on leadership (my thanks to Catherine Perme for her permission to use sketches of the six perspectives) and a brief word about a seventh view. Each view has two subsets.


  • a. Exclusive theories say that leaders are born, not made and they define/study inherent characteristics of leaders (examples: intelligence, personality, height, etc.) in order t better identify future leadership potential.
  • b. Inclusive theorists believe that everyone can be leaders by developing their strengths, minimizing their weaknesses, and finding the right opportunities. Personality assessment tools such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, etc assist individuals in this process.


  • a. Informal: Some theories, such as those focused on small group process, hold that leadership is dynamic and flows from one person to another based on tasks at hand and the skills or roles of the people involved.
  • b. Formal: Other theories, such as those advanced by Hersey and Blanchard in Situational Leadership and the One Minute Manager, focus on one specific person as a leader (such as a boss) and provide that person a formal structure for evaluating and relating to followers. These theories advocate leadership success as a function of correctly matching leader styles to followers' needs in each new situation.


  • a. Position theory concentrates on what it takes to become the head of something, whether it's the head of a department or the CEO. Career development, executive resource systems, and assessment centers are systematic methods that are used to identify and select new leaders. Leadership is "headship" and the organizations best suited to these theories are bureaucratic in nature and operate on the concept of a "chain of command."
  • b. Organic theory proposes that leadership emerges within an organization as a function of the environment in which it finds itself. Successful leadership during a period of rapid growth would be inherently different than what was needed in times of stability or retrenchment. A classic example is that of the entrepreneur who turns over control of the business to a professional manager to bring maturity and stability to an organization.


  • a. "Power over" theories concentrate on building influence and support to make something happen. Politics (both large "P" and small "p") is the classic implementation of this. Books and seminars on networking, negotiation, office politics and "beating the system" are reflective of this genre.
  • b. "Power with" or empowerment theories are based on models of participative management and community building. Power is shared and forward movement is a collective effort. The dividing line between leaders and followers is broken.


  • a. Content theory promotes a leader as one who can "divine and define" the shape of the future based on extrapolation from past and present trends. Books such as Megatrends by John Naisbitt and Future Shock by Alvin Toffler are examples. Strategic planning methods are often used in this context to help create an organization's future by defining its mission, goals and objectives.
  • b. Process theory sees leadership as the ability to be creative, imaginative, and communicative about the future - the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, for example. These theories value intuition and creativity and seek to unleash the genius in all of us. Concepts of "right brain, left brain," creativity seminars, and envisioning exercises are all products of this body of theory.


  • a. Intrinsic theory suggest that leadership is inherently ethical. Its opposite is tyranny. It seeks to meet people's authentic needs and raises the level of moral reasoning in the process. James MacGregor Burns' Leadership is a pioneering example.
  • b. Extrinsic theory suggests that real leadership is rooted in integrity. It is not positional or perk related. Janet Hagber Real Power articulates this view.


  • All six views have merit. All have weaknesses. Is there a seventh view emerging? Is there one that taps the strengths of each perspective, recognizes the weaknesses and still maintains an integrity of its own without falling into a sloppy eclecticism?
  • I've taken up that challenge. It is quite clear to me that leadership, to be effective, requires:
  • Knowledge of self and others (trait or personal leadership)
  • Sensitivity to group process and team building (situational or team leadership)
  • Organizational astuteness (organizational leadership)
  • Political savvy (political leadership)
  • Clear sense of direction and innovation (visionary leadership)
  • Ethical clarity and commitment (ethical leadership)

However, if leadership is more than a sum of these six components, what then is it? Leadership is the courage to bring forth and let come forth authentic action in the commons. Let me comment briefly on each key concept:

Authentic: Authenticity embodies that which is true and real. Truth is abstract; the real is concrete. To be authentic is to unite both in living history by being true and real with ourselves and true and real in the world. It is facing differences openly, embracing fears and living into and toward a shared future.

Action: Leadership is engagement with life. It is not reducible to skills, but is skillful. It is not passive. Rather it builds a sustainable future that secures the gift of life for all.

In the Commons: Leadership is public and interactive in a world of great diversity. It works in the commons for the common good. It is hopeful, not cynical, yet realistic. At its heart is a spiritual quest for human fulfillment.

Leadership in disarray or ferment? As I said earlier, I think it is both. Thus in a time of disarray and ferment, there is the authentic engagement for human well-being.

The Action Wheel Leadership Program will be structured to meet the specific needs of your organization.

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