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About this book

Neil Thompson provides a fresh, unique perspective on leadership skills. The Authentic Leader highlights problems with existing approaches and makes a case for a human centred-approach. It will enrich understanding of good leadership by demonstrating the importance of authenticity in empowering and leading others.

Table of Contents

Leadership in context

Chapter 1. Problems with leadership theory

In this chapter I outline a number of what I see as fundamental flaws in the type of theoretical thinking that is generally applied to leadership. I will in each case relate those flaws to how an approach to authentic leadership premised on existentialism offers a sounder foundation for understanding and future practice. The reason for doing this is to counter any complacency about the extent of our understanding of leadership. Although it is a topic that has spawned a huge number of publications, training programmes and media coverage, there remains much that we do not understand about it, and, as this chapter will illustrate, there are certain widely used aspects of leadership theory that are problematic in their ability to capture the human complexities associated with it.

Chapter 2. Problems with leadership practice

The flaws in theory that were identified in Chapter 1 will, of course, have implications for practice, but there are also problems that can be identified that relate to how leadership is carried out in practice, irrespective of the theoretical underpinnings that have been drawn upon. Indeed, much of the difficulty in practice arises not from practices based on flawed theory, but, rather, on flawed ‘practice wisdom’ that has grown up over time (in large part due to the influence of the training and consultancy industry that has adopted a number of assumptions not to be found in the textbooks, but which have none the less proven influential in shaping actual practice at the ground level — see Furnham, 2004 and Furnham, 2006 for a discussion of this).

Chapter 3. Leadership in social context

Hames (2007), in an important study of leadership, argues that: ‘Complexity teaches us that nothing happens in isolation and that most phenomena and events are interconnected in some form or other’ (p. 90). This chapter explores the significance of that statement by exploring the key role of the wider social context in shaping workplace practices.

Existential authenticity

Chapter 4. Authenticity and its importance

This chapter focuses on the key term of authenticity and tries to explain why it is of such significance in relation to leadership. In particular it seeks to differentiate the notion of existential authenticity from the essentialist authenticity that has been a feature of so many works on the subject of authentic leadership (for example, George, 2003; 2007). It will explore a number of key concepts which relate to how authenticity can be an important concept in making sense of the challenges of leadership with a view to casting light on existentialist ideas and can provide a sound foundation for developing leadership theory and practice.

Chapter 5. Understanding human existence: ontology

This is the second of three chapters exploring how understandings based on existentialism can offer us a clearer picture of the complexities involved in human existence in general and leadership in particular. It builds on the ideas about authenticity discussed in Chapter 4 and paves the way for the discussion of the central role of perception and meaning in Chapter 6. It focuses on four particular existentialist concepts that have much to offer by way of explanatory power. I provide an overview of each of these in turn so that we can see how they cast significant light on important aspects of human existence. This knowledge will then be very useful in developing authentic forms of leadership.

Chapter 6. The role of meaning: phenomenology

We have already come across this important but complex term of phenomenology. In this chapter I examine it in more detail and emphasize its significance. Phenomenology is not so much a specific philosophy as a style of philosophizing, a way of approaching philosophical issues that seeks to make sense of them in terms of key issues around perception and meaning. Given the important leadership role of culture shaping, which in effect involves negotiating sets of meanings and influencing people’s perceptions, then phenomenology is clearly something that has relevance to developing a fuller and deeper understanding of leadership.

Authentic leadership in practice

Chapter 7. Leadership praxis

Praxis is a philosophical term which refers to the fusion of theory and practice. Theory is an attempt to explain, to develop a set of related ideas (a conceptual framework) that help us to understand whatever that particular theory focuses on. Practice refers to actually carrying out a set of work tasks in a particular context, in this case the exercise of leadership. Leadership praxis therefore refers to how we can bring together theory and practice in ways in which they support one another to develop.

Chapter 8. Existentialism in practice

In this chapter I present six practice scenarios and offer analysis for each from the point of view of existentialist thought specifically relating to the key concept of authenticity. In each one I will be addressing the question of what is an authentic way forward for a leader in facing the challenges involved. The use of scenarios in this chapter reflects the importance of the point I was emphasizing in Chapter 7 of the need to start with concrete situations, to begin with practice and then seek to theorize it by drawing on relevant theoretical understandings, rather than trying to apply theory to practice in an artificial way (as discussed in Chapter 7).

Chapter 9. Authentic leadership

Some years ago I was invited to write a chapter for a book on social work about how existentialist thought can inform social work practice (Thompson, 2012e). That chapter was built around eight principles of existentialist thought and how each of these can cast light on practice. I am now going to carry out a similar operation in this chapter by revisiting those eight principles and showing how they can equally well cast light on leadership practice, and thereby make a contribution to the development of authentic leadership. I will therefore explore each of the eight principles in turn, give an overview of the significance of the principles, and then offer some ideas about how these can be useful in practice.


This has been a wide-ranging book, covering a number of philosophical concepts and their implications for aspects of leadership practice. Part I laid the foundations by exploring various aspects of leadership and a range of problems associated with current understandings of them. Part I also emphasized that leadership issues need to be considered within a wider social context. Part II examined authenticity from an existentialist perspective and introduced a number of key concepts designed to cast light on how existential authenticity (as opposed to the simplistic essentialist authenticity commonly found in much of the leadership literature) can be of value. Part III sought to extend our understanding of those concepts and their usefulness in practice by, first of all, discussing the relationship between theory and practice, then highlighting a number of practice scenarios and exploring how existentialist thought could be drawn upon to make sense of them and, finally, focusing on eight principles of existentialism that can be useful in forming a useful theoretical base for developing authentic leadership practice.

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