Introduction: South Africa continues to go through transformation with affirmative action affording previously disadvantaged groups the opportunity to build careers they previously could not pursue. Since 1994, there has been a slow increase in the number of women and previously disadvantaged groups joining the leadership ranks of South African organisations. Statistics reveal that the South African professional world currently has 20.9 percentage of women in leadership positions. In terms of Africans, Indians and coloureds, statistics reveal the following for the Gauteng Province: African males comprise 9.7 percent while African females are a mere 4.8 percent. The numbers are quite small for Indians and coloureds with Indian males at 5.9 percent and Indian females at 2.1 percent. Coloured males comprise 1.9 percent and coloured females are 1.0 percent. While there has been a good deal of research documenting the dearth of these groups in the workplace and the slow pace of transformation, there has been less research about how they lead and particularly whether they are able to be authentic leaders.
This question is important because leadership positions continue to be dominated by Whites, particularly White males. To the extent this group has historically dominated leadership positions, they have also shaped preferred leadership styles. Previous research has found that leaders who do not fit the dominant leader prototype of a White male can practice authentic leadership.
The purpose of this study is to explore gender and ethnic differences in the relationship between ethnic identity and the practice of authentic leadership among South African leaders.
Motivation for the study
Previous research suggests that leaders who identify with their ethnic groups, irrespective of whether they fit the leader prototype or not; they are able to lead authentically. Given this research and the South African context the study was interested in understanding whether there are ethnic and gender differences in the perceived practice of authentic leadership. Authentic leaders are described as leaders who are self-aware, who lead in a way that is congruent with their identity. Proponents of authentic leadership theory argue authentic leaders are embedded in their values and moral standards and remain true to these in how they lead and relate to followers. Therefore this study was interested in determining the level of authenticity in South African leaders and to determine whether this was influenced by the level of identification with their ethnicity.
Research design, approach and method
A quantitative method was adopted to examine the research question. A questionnaire consisting of measures of ethnic identity and authentic leadership as well as demographic information was used to collect data.
A sample was comprised of one hundred and seventy seven African and White male and female leaders. They worked in organisations in the Gauteng province, particularly in Pretoria and Johannesburg and each of them participated in the study; providing information about their perceived level of authentic leadership and ethnic identity.
The results indicated that leaders from the Gauteng region who identify strongly with their ethnic groups perceived that, irrespective of their ethnic group membership or gender; they are able to lead authentically. However, there were differences in the degree to which this relationship occurred. Four hypothesis were tested and of the four, three indicated (i) a positive correlation between ethnic identity and authentic leadership, (ii) significant gender differences in the relationship between ethnic identity and authentic leadership and (iii) significant intersectional differences in the relationships.
The implications of these findings for research and practice are discussed as well as suggestions for future research.