Texas Tech University

William L. Gardner

Professor
Area of Management
Director of the Institute for Leadership Research
Rawls College of Business

William L. Gardner

Learn more about Integrated Scholar William L. Gardner in this question-and-answer session.

What are your research objectives and interests?

Throughout my academic career, I have been fascinated by the essential role that leadership plays within organizations and society as a whole. Leadership can serve as the lever through which impactful change is achieved. Of course, there is no guarantee that the changes leaders elicit will be positive. Indeed, there are many times when they can be quite destructive. As a leadership scholar, I feel a responsibility to explore positive forms of leadership that can promote constructive, developmental change within organizations, as well as the people who work in them. Toward that end, over the past dozen years my research program has focused on a special type of leadership, authentic leadership. This is a genuine form of leadership whereby the leader seeks to develop and model greater self-awareness and a commitment to be true to core values and personal strengths. As this description suggests, knowledge of the self – including one's values, beliefs, motives and abilities – serves as the foundation for authentic leadership. In essence, it involves a search to know the self and then be true to that self when leading others. Note that such leadership does not operate in a vacuum; by definition, leadership involves the establishment of influential relationships with followers. Leaders who truly strive for authenticity, attempt to lead in a fashion that reflects their best self – within the situational context – while helping followers to discover, develop, and engage their best selves as well.

The research that I have conducted with my colleagues here at Texas Tech, as well as other institutions, supports our expectations regarding the core elements of authentic leadership. In particular, we find that authentic leadership is characterized by higher levels of self-awareness, transparent relationships, an ability to process ego-relevant information, be it positive or negative, in a relatively objective fashion, a commitment to core ethical principles, and consistency between one's words and deeds. Our findings reveal that more, as opposed to less, authentic leadership is positively related to higher levels of follower trust, empowerment, engagement, job satisfaction, job performance, organizational commitment and organizational citizenship behaviors. There are also tangible benefits for the leaders, as they experience higher levels of mindfulness and psychological well-being. And, there are organizational benefits as well, as authentic leadership is associated with documented improvements in firm financial performance and ethical conduct.

Over the past dozen years, interest in authentic leadership, among both scholars and practicing managers, has grown at phenomenal rate. The best-selling books written by, Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and current Harvard professor, titled "Authentic Leadership" and "True North," have no doubt contributed to the popularity of the topic. As interest has grown, it has been rewarding to apply rigorous research methods to explore the antecedents and consequences of authentic leadership. Doing so has helped to provide credible evidence of the potential positive effects of authentic leadership mentioned earlier.How do you feel your research impacts the globe?

One indicator of worldwide interest in authentic leadership is the number of citations that my publications on the topic have received. Indeed, four of my five most cited articles focus on authentic leadership. Overall, my cumulative publications on authentic leadership have been cited more than 4,000 times according to Google Scholar. Additionally, my most frequently cited article, entitled "Authentic Leadership: Getting to the Root of Positive Forms of Leadership" which is co-authored with Bruce Avolio of the University of Washington, was the most downloaded Leadership Quarterly publication from 2010 to 2012, and remains among the top five to this day. So I know the topic has really resonated with a lot of people, which has been very gratifying.

Beyond the citations, however, there is more immediate, tangible and rewarding evidence of the impact of our research into authentic leadership. For instance, I know from conversations with Nick Craig, the president of the Authentic Leadership Institute (ALI) that he uses our research to enrich and support the content of the leadership development programs ALI offers. To date, ALI has delivered more than 4,000 of its programs to executives at major corporations from around the world, including General Electric, Unilever and AstraZeneca. Additionally, I have been invited to speak on authentic leadership to both corporate and scholarly audiences within North America, Europe and Asia. Finally, I experience the impact of this research even more directly through interactions with my students. Here in the Rawls College of Business, we use authentic leadership theory as an overarching framework when we teach our Leadership and Ethics courses within the undergraduate, STEM MBA, and Working Professionals MBA programs. Our students repeatedly tell us of the impact that embracing an authentic approach to leadership has had on their effectiveness as leaders, as well as the feelings of engagement and well-being that this approach promotes. And that, is the most gratifying feedback of all.

What types of service projects have you been involved with?

My primary service contributions have involved administrative roles, leadership roles within professional organizations and editorial roles within scholarly journals. For instance, I served as the Area of Management coordinator from 2006 through 2014, and I have served as the director of the Institute for Leadership Research (ILR) since I arrived at Texas Tech in 2005. I have also been particularly active within the Southern Management Association (SMA), where I have served as a presenter, discussant, reviewer, track chair, and program chair for SMA's annual meeting, as well as its President from 2006 to 2007. While I have served for many years as a member of the editorial review boards for several scholarly journals, including the Academy of Management Journal, The Leadership Quarterly, and the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, I have recently expanded my editorial service by taking on the roles of associate editor for The Leadership Quarterly and editor-in-chief for Group & Organization Management. I find these editorial positions to be particularly rewarding, as they provide an opportunity to facilitate the publication of cutting-edge and high quality research designed to expand our knowledge of effective leadership and management practices.

What are you currently working on?

Not surprisingly, most of my current research focuses on authentic leadership. In particular, I am a member of several research teams that seek to further explore the antecedents, intervening processes and consequences of authentic leadership. We are especially interested in the extent to which authentic leadership may be shared within teams, and whether or not the performance and satisfaction of such teams is enhanced as a result. I am also exploring the boundaries of authentic leadership. To pursue these boundaries, we ask a lot of perplexing questions, such as:

  • What personalities and settings are more versus less conducive to authentic leader-follower relationships? • What happens when a leader strives to foster an authentic relationship with a follower who is narcissistic or Machiavellian, or vice versa?
  • Is it possible for a follower to establish an authentic relationship with a leader who has a history of being abusive towards subordinates?
  • Is it possible to practice authentic leadership in a highly toxic environment characterized by high levels of distrust and manipulation?
  • What role can authentic leadership play in changing such a toxic context to produce a more trusting and supportive culture?

These are important research questions to explore; all theories have boundaries and it is critical that we identify the boundaries of authentic leadership to fully understand when it is most, and least, effective.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Several years ago, Nick Craig invited me to attend one of the ALI leadership development programs he was offering at Harvard. The two-day workshop involved the application of a number of exercises that Bill George includes in "True North." The common objective of these exercises is to heighten leader self-awareness and authenticity. As part of the workshop, we had a personal coach who worked with us to help guide us through the self-exploration process. One of the program modules focuses on identifying one's purpose. Specifically, participants are asked to articulate the purpose that serves as the inspiration for their professional work. At the outset of this exercise, I stated my purpose in rather generic terms that reflect my responsibilities as a professor. Something like, "My purpose is to generate new knowledge through research, disseminate knowledge through teaching, and provide service to the academic and professional communities." My coach was very displeased by both the vagueness of my purpose statement and the lack of passion with which I expressed it. She asked me what my hobbies were, and what I enjoyed doing in my spare time. I said that I love music, and I have a very large collection of CD's and songs on my iPod that reflect a diversity of genres, including rock (classic, progressive, punk, new wave, grunge, alternative, etc.), jazz, reggae, folk, classical, and blues. She said, "Wow, you really get excited when you talk about music! Who is your favorite artist?" I said, "Well, I'm from New Jersey and I grew up in the 70's, so I really, really like Bruce Springsteen – the Boss! I respect him for a lot of reasons – his lyrics, music, service to the less fortunate, longevity, and the fact that he is an incredible performer who routinely gives three and a half-hour performances." She said, "Ok, I want to hear you explain your purpose with the same passion that you just expressed when describing your love of music and Bruce Springsteen." So, I struggled to craft a purpose statement that better reflected my passion for my work. For a while, I was going to be the "Bruce Springsteen of Leadership Research," until I realized that having someone else's name in your purpose statement is not very authentic.

Eventually, my purpose came to me in one of those Eurika moments. Here it is: my purpose is "To make leadership theory real." While this may sound simplistic, there is actually a lot of meaning packed into those five words. First, like a musician who makes music, I make leadership theory. That is what I do. I am an academic, and part of our job is theory building. And while that may sound boring to a lot of people, I love it. Second, what do I make? Leadership theory. That is the product that I create. I am a leadership scholar for all of the reasons I listed in response to the first question. That is, because I truly believe leadership is important and can serve as a positive lever for change. Third, while I make leadership theory, that is not the only thing I do. To the contrary, my ultimate goal is to make leadership theory REAL. And here, the word real is critical, for three reasons. First, I am not seeking to generate leadership theory for theory's sake. Instead, my ultimate goal is to create leadership theory that is useful for real world leaders. Second, I seek, through my teaching, to make leadership theory real, and useful, for my students. Third, there is a particular type of leadership that I concentrate on – authentic or real leadership. So, that simple phrase, "to make leadership theory real" is saturated with meaning that serves as the inspiration for the work that I do.

What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research, and service—in their careers?

My primary piece of advice is to find an area of study for which you have a passion, such as authentic leadership in my case. When you have a passion for the topic, it naturally permeates your research, teaching, and service in a complimentary fashion. In addition, you gain natural synergies when your stream of research is aligned with your teaching interests – and vice versa -- and both inform the opportunities for service that you pursue. Taking myself as an example, I am able to incorporate my focus on authentic leadership into the classroom when I teach courses such as, Principles of Management, Organizational Behavior, and particularly Leadership and Ethics, whether they be in the undergraduate, graduate or working professionals programs. Indeed, because authentic leadership includes a basic moral component whereby leaders strive to stay true to their core ethical values, students can use this framework to examine the implications of their values for ethical dilemmas that they encounter in and out of the classroom.

Additionally, I find the emphasis that authentic leadership places on the development of followers has important implications for my efforts to serve as a mentor for my students. Nowhere is this emphasis more pronounced than in my relationships with doctoral students. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the opportunity to work closely with bright and conscientious doctoral students to help them acquire the relevant content knowledge and research expertise. Because many of our doctoral students come specifically to Texas Tech to study authentic leadership, I have the privilege to not only teach them the content of the theory, but to hopefully model what it means to be an authentic leader. In doing so, I strive to help them grow and develop to be their best selves – both as scholars and individuals.

In a similar fashion, my service as a journal editor provides me with the opportunity to influence the fields of leadership and management by helping authors to publish high quality and groundbreaking research. In essence, I strive to bring out the best work in the field, by recognizing, encouraging and ultimately publishing rigorous and impactful research.

So, that is my primary message for young faculty – pursue an intrinsically motivating area for your teaching and research that enables you to seamlessly integrate your interests with the service you perform to achieve synergistic, complimentary and rewarding outcomes in all three areas.

Scholar background:

My roots trace back to southern New Jersey, where my four siblings and I were raised by my wise and devoted parents, Ralph and Betty. My father built a successful family business as a wholesale hardware distributor known as Gardner Brothers. Because I had experience working in Gardner Brothers and I thought I might join the family business after college, I decided to major in business management as an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. However, upon graduation, I decided to pursue graduate studies in management instead. This decision was based, in part, on an acknowledgement that the family business was already in the very capable hands of my brother Ralph, Jr., who took over once my father retired. However, it also stemmed from an understanding of how much I would enjoy teaching and research.

For my graduate studies, I attended Florida State University where I earned my MBA and DBA. My major professor was Mark Martinko, a leading authority on attribution theory and impression management – topics that I explored with him in my early research. My first faculty appointment was at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from 1984 to 1989. It was during this time that my two sons, Will and Scott, were born. Shortly thereafter, our family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where I took a position as the Hearin-Hess Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Mississippi. I remained at Ole Miss for 14 years. In 2003, I accepted an appointment as the Howard Hawks Chair in Business Ethics and Leadership at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This was a special time in my career, as I worked with colleagues from the Gallup Leadership Institute and the Gallup Organization to develop and assess a foundational theory of authentic leadership.

In 2005, my future wife, Claudia Cogliser, who at the time was a professor of management at the University of Oklahoma, and I accepted appointments as faculty members in the Rawls College of Business. This enabled us to be together, along with her children, Liv and Josh, and her mother, Betty. We have thrived during our decade in Lubbock, both as a family, and professionally. Claudia is now an associate dean in the Graduate School, Josh is a freshman at the University of Arizona where he is studying business,for now at least, Liv is a junior at Lubbock High, where she is conscientiously preparing for college, and Betty has a lively social life with her friends in the community.

Reflecting on my time here at Texas Tech, I realize that I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to not only pursue the work I love, but to do so with a partner that I love. Now, THAT, is the ultimate integration of one's personal and professional lives!