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How Authentic Leaders can bring a sense of meaning to public service work

2 August 2022

News and media


Image of ANZSOG Faculty Dana Born

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath has shifted the role of leadership in the public sector by creating an emphasis on more collaborative and people-centric approaches. 

At the same time, public services and other employers are battling to retain staff and avoid the effects of burnout and loss of motivation. 

Harvard Kennedy School’s Dr Dana Born, a distinguished former US military leader and Exchange Officer with the RAAF, and a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a well-established presenter of ANZSOG courses and says that the pandemic has shown the importance of ‘authentic leaders’ who can build trust and confidence and create a sense of meaning around what they and their teams are doing. 

She says the concept of Authentic Leadership takes the role of a leader beyond a set of managerial skills and allows them to bring their authentic selves into their leadership. 

“To become an effective leader, a person needs to recognise that their leadership style must be adaptive and also an authentic extension of their character and personality – you cannot become a General Patton when your propensity is to be like Mother Teresa,” she said. 

“The key is stretching ourselves to be able to grow our tool kit, to adapt our styles across situations without losing ourselves. It is a lifelong process of growth and of fit and alignment, not one fixed style of leading. 

“Authentic leadership is an approach to leadership that focuses on original, genuine and ethical leader behaviour and encourages the open sharing of information needed to make decisions while accepting input from followers.” 

She said that good leaders have self-awareness and self-acceptance, a growth mindset and the ability to integrate different parts of themselves, and to manage the ‘we’ and the “I’ of leadership. 

“Many public servants jump straight into the ‘we’ – what can ‘we” do together – and don’t pay enough attention to the ‘I’ – the importance of themselves as a person and what they need to focus on to inspire others.”  

Dr Born said that the description of the present time as the ‘new normal’ was misleading and that public sector leaders needed to think in terms of the ‘novel normal’ or the ‘next normal’. 

“Public servants are now being required to adapt to uncertainty as a way of life, and things are not going back to the way they were,” she said. 

“There are now so many competing demands on leaders. In discussions about leadership, we’ve spoken about the VUCA concept (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) that evolved out of the US military during the 1990s.  

“The idea was that the world is no longer linear and predictable, and that is even more true now since leaders have to address so many different crises, including social issues, environmental considerations and political matters simultaneously.” 

She cited the work of Harvard’s Professor Bill George, that the new ‘VUCA 2.0’model for leaders is that of Vision, Understanding, Courage and Adaptability.  Professor George’s upcoming book  discusses leadership in this new era, and this article outlines his insights. 

“In this environment – what we need is a shared vision and awareness of what you are about as a leader. Concomitantly, we need an understanding of your strengths and values as well as those of your organisation, and the capacity for both to contribute to the greater good,” Dr Born said. 

“There needs to be an adaptability to new circumstances, but this comes with a willingness to go against the grain, to display moral courage, and say we are going to do things differently.” 

Creating meaning to inspire the public sector 

Dr Born said that many people had used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rethink what they were doing, leading to what has been called the ‘great resignation’, as large numbers of people left organisations. 

“During the pandemic many people did more work on their inward journey – thinking about the who, what and why of their lives, and asking themselves what they were doing.” she said. 

“There’s a quote from Dov Seidman, Author of the book, ‘How’:One of the simplest and most powerful tools we have as individuals is the ability to pause. Think about it. When you press pause on a machine, it stops. When we pause as humans, we begin.” 

“The pandemic shutdown meant there was an opportunity to pause for reflection and to focus on self-awareness – people were asking questions like: what are my roles, what motivates me intrinsically and extrinsically, who are my supporters, what is my life story and what do I want to be remembered for? In sum, who am I and why am I and how do I want to love, live and lead going forward? 

She said that leaders needed to translate that self-awareness to their organisations to give their teams a sense of purpose to inspire each person to embrace their distinctive contribution to make a positive difference in our world. 

“Learning to be an authentic leader can reduce stress and improve well-being, since it helps one to find meaning in work, and significance in life is what keeps us to be more well and fulfilled.” 

“As humans we like to be connected to others, and authentic leadership allows us to be connected at a deeper level.” 

“One of the key challenges of the public sector now will be to find that meaning, and this is key to embracing your role as a public sector leader. Even more than pre-pandemic, it is really important to clarify the public value of your efforts. Those goals of trying to align people with a shared purpose, trying to inspire each person to explore ‘what can I do?’, and asking ‘what is it that we can do?’ becomes more important. 

“This is a strengths-based way of thinking, and I would say that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership during the pandemic exemplifies what I see as that kind of leadership.”  

Good leaders are made, not just born, and Dr Born articulated that there are three characteristics all leaders can work on to improve the way they lead. 

“We have to work on our curiosity, leaders must have the capacity to learn and listen, to have more questions than answers, and to be thinking about what they don’t know – or what they don’t know they don’t know.” 

“Another requirement is reflection, the process of taking time to really think about what and why we are doing something.  This means investing time to establish ways of measuring that let us apprise where we are and where we are headed. It means implementing double-loop learning: so that we are actually iterating to get closer to where we want to be, rather than being stuck in neutral by doing the same thing time and again.” 

“Finally, we need to have a clear definition of success. What is success for us as an organisation? What does success look like for me when I take my last breath?  This is an effort to write the history of our future and align to it in our daily activities and efforts.” 


Dr Born will be teaching several online workshops for ANZSOG over the coming months, focusing on developing personal leadership that can be used in the current uncertain public service environment. Authentic Leadership for the path ahead consists of six weekly sessions beginning on 8 September and is open for applications now. The course will show you how to build your leadership abilities, using your own personal story to shape your leadership style. The course will show Discover ideas, techniques and tools to grow your self-awareness, develop a ‘learning mindset’ and assist you to become a leader who leads by example and empowers others. 

Courageous Conversations spans five hours across 16-17 August and is also open for applications. This course is designed for you to learn a proven approach to conversations (and giving and receiving feedback) across your personal and professional life and will show you how to transition from argumentation to reflective engagement, negotiate a “win-win” or at least a compromise, and practice the “why” and “how” of fruitful and constructive feedback. This article outlines some of the thinking behind the course 

A recently released paper that she co-authored explores the positive impact of identity-based leadership development on psychological functioning and wellbeing. 

Dr Born will also lead one of the Masterclasses in ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series, on Leading with Integrity on 26 August, the masterclass is sold out.