This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Beyond the Skin: How African American Women Senior Administrators Describe Their Experiences of Developing an Authentic Leadership Style




Cook, Olivia

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Political Science


Using a qualitative multiple case study approach, this dissertation study seeks to examine how African American women in senior administrator roles at a member institution of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) in Alabama describe their experiences as to how they developed a leadership style. Historically, the number of African American women in senior leadership roles lag drastically compared to their Caucasian male and female as well as African American male counterparts (Benjamin, 1997; Davis, 2016; Davis & Maldonado, 2015; Duggar, 2001; Parker, 1996; Sandberg, 2013). Because of this, research shows that African American women have been underrepresented in the leadership literature (Almquist, 1987; Carter & Peters, 2016; Davis, 2016; Davis & Maldonado, 2015) as well as in senior leadership and management positions (Counts 2012; Duggar, 2001; Pace, 2017; Pace, 2018). Therefore, this study uses the authentic leadership framework (Luthans & Avolio, 2003) to describe how African American women senior administrators at a member institution of APLU develop a personal leadership style. This adds to the public administration literature on leadership and cultural competency, giving a voice to African American women by understanding their backgrounds through their stories. Following previous studies and recommendations for future research (Davis, 2016; Davis & Maldonado, 2015; Milner, 2006; Pace, 2017; Robinson, 2017; Wiggs-Harris, 2011), the following research question guides this work: How do African American women senior administrators describe their experiences of developing a leadership style? To conduct this research, purposeful sampling is used to select African American women senior administrators, particularly in the president’s cabinet, who work in a member institution of APLU in the State of Alabama. The results of this study revealed six common themes are related to the leadership style development of African American women: (a) they describe a transformational leadership style as their preferred leadership style; (b) qualities modeled by their parents guided their leadership style development; (c) understanding and connecting with people is important in their process; (d) their gender and race required them to work hard at leading; (e) mentorship is a priority; and, (f) being authentic and true to themselves is imperative in the workplace. Code-switching was also an interesting element that emerged from some of the interviews, which may impact how some of them may present themselves and are perceived by others. The conclusions of this study relate to the components of an authentic leadership style development where personal experiences, triggering events and identity are all vital components when trying to stay true to self and maintain self-awareness. In relation to the findings, theories of authentic leadership and intersectionality are discussed along with suggestions for future research.