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Linking leader and gender identities to authentic leadership in small businesses

Cynthia Mignonne Sims (Department of Educational and Organizational Leadership Development, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, USA)
Tao Gong (Department of Social Sciences, Food Resource Sciences, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne, Maryland, USA)
Claretha Hughes (Department of Rehabilitation, Human Resources, and Communication Disorders, University of Arkansas System, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 3 July 2017




Women are starting businesses at unprecedented rates, yet little is known about the leadership of small business owners. Establishing new ventures may allow women to use their full abilities and benefit from a more level playing field. Business owners have the unique opportunity to lead and define their businesses based on their authentic selves, values and goals; therefore, they are more likely to be authentic leaders. Women in nontraditional industries may be challenged because the owner’s characteristics do not match those of the industry. When the enactment of one identity interferes with another identity, identity interference (II) occurs. Relational authenticity and role incongruity suggests that women founders must uniquely resolve II and find synergy among their gender and leader identities if they are to extend the boundaries of what it means to be a woman and an industry’s business leader. This research aims to determine whether gender and leader II was an antecedent or link to authentic leadership (AL).


Study participants were from 63 businesses in the USA states of California, Ohio and Maryland. Three leader models were established to determine whether owner gender functioned as a moderator: all genders (n = 155), women only (n = 75) and men only (n = 65). The individual owners and their employees were the units of analysis and structural equation modeling was used.


The findings revealed that II was an antecedent to AL, owners were AL and owner gender moderated AL and II.

Research limitations/implications

This study supports (Kernis, 2003; Gardner et al., 2005) the proposition that identity congruence is necessary for AL; the less interference found between gender and leader identities, the more authentic the leader. II functioned as an antecedent to AL. Moreover when the AL self’s subscales were examined relative to II, the components that were active varied dramatically based on leader gender. This suggests that addressing II and resolving the incongruence between what it mean to be a woman (or a man) and a leader contributes to the development of AL. Additionally, the AL boundary condition of relational authenticity was supported by this study; leader gender was related to the different amounts of AL (Eagly, 2005; Kernis, 2003). Support was found that AL was a dynamic process between leaders and employees. When authentic leadership questionnaire (ALQ) self (leader) and rater (employee) were compared, there was a significant amount of consistency between these ratings. For the all genders leader model, when ALQ self’s subscale was analyzed relative to the employees’ ratings, the leaders’ relational transparency was found to be active. The women only leader model revealed that AL was activated through internalized moral perspective suggesting they were able to tap into the hearts and minds of their employees. For the men only leaders, no relationship was revealed between ALQ self’s subcomponents and employee AL ratings. Relational authenticity suggests that this may be due to employees rating men owners more based on the experience and perceptions of men leaders in general and not these business owners in particular.

Practical implications

Leadership development professionals should address how II may help women examine who they are, how they work with others, and their values; decrease leader II by providing insight on how to manage potentially conflicting roles through examples of synergistic behaviors and benefits; and, build upon women owners’ ability to connect with their followers by sharing their goals and aspirations. Men owners may benefit by ensuring their employees know their business’ unique value proposition.


This research sought to link the identities of leader and gender to AL in the context of small businesses. It builds upon the AL theory of Avolio et al., (2004) and Jensen and Luthans (2006) who advocated using AL to study small businesses. This study determined whether business owners experienced interference between their gender and leader identities; II hindered the formation of AL and was an antecedent to AL; and the owner’s gender led to more or less AL and thus determined if leader gender moderated AL. The support for studying leader gender comes from role incongruity (Eagly and Diekman, 2005) and relational authenticity (Eagly, 2005; Kernis, 2003) which suggests that differences in how employees perceive AL may be a function of the owner’s gender. Added support comes from Jensen and Luthans (2006); they asked future studies to examine AL to determine the mechanisms behind gender differences in small businesses. Such research provides insight on the development of AL in theory and practice.



Sims, C.M., Gong, T. and Hughes, C. (2017), "Linking leader and gender identities to authentic leadership in small businesses", Gender in Management, Vol. 32 No. 5, pp. 318-329.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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