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CELEBRATE! Profile: Mat Goldberg '14

A psychology major recently awarded a Fulbright to teach English in South Korea researched the emerging theory of authentic leadership by surveying two very different groups of people.

Pause for a moment to envision a “leader.” For many people, that picture may be of someone in a position of authority, whether through promotion or appointment or election.

But in the field of leadership studies, another theory is starting to emerge, one that defines an “authentic” leader as someone who builds relationships through the demonstration of trust and vulnerability. It’s a theory gaining attention in the wake of recent political and corporate scandals where positional “leaders” displayed no moral compass in wreaking havoc on innocent lives.

What are the traits of authentic leaders, and is there a relationship between the way people perceive themselves and how they exhibit qualities of authentic leadership? Elon University senior Mat Goldberg sought answers to those questions and findings shared April 29 at the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum are the latest to be featured in a series of E-net stories on research presented during CELEBRATE! Week 2014.

Under the guidance of Associate Professor Chris Leupold in the Department of Psychology, Goldberg conducted two separate research projects over the past two years that in some ways complement each other.

“Exploration of Authentic Leadership, Core Evaluations & Perceived Leadership Effectiveness” measured levels of self-worthiness in college students taking part in a leadership program as well as their perceptions of other people.

What the New Jersey native discovered was that students who scored high on both measurements also displayed the strongest traits of authentic leadership, which develops from a moral sense rather than positional placement. Authentic leadership relies on self-awareness, unbiased processing, relational awareness and outward behaviors consistent with core values.

“Individuals who have positive perceptions of themselves and positive perceptions of other are more likely to be authentic leaders,” Goldberg said. There’s a misconception that “leaders are born,” he added. “There needs to be a greater emphasis on talking about authentic leadership.”

Goldberg also found that college students reported “hard skills” like organization, communication and management as their top strengths, responses that contrast with feedback from a very different group of people he surveyed about leadership.

In another study conducted with assistance from Leupold, Goldberg queried people facing homelessness in Greensboro, North Carolina, about their views of leadership. “Leadership Perceptions Among People Facing Homelessness” emerged from his internship with the Interactive Resource Center, a nonprofit that aids those without permanent homes in one of North Carolina’s larger cities.

Many people don't expect to find leaders among individuals facing homelessness, Goldberg said, though leadership traits certainly exist. Several people facing homelessness whom he identified as leaders scored higher on core self evaluations, self-awareness, confidence, leadership effectiveness and strength articulation - all neccessary competencies to find employment and improve one's life.

Unlike college students, those facing homelessness placed greater value on leadership “soft skills." Such skills might include trustworthiness, listening and patience. Goldberg also noticed that people with leadership traits who face homelessness, perhaps because of life experience, demonstrate stronger tendencies to be “authentic leaders” than college students studying leadership.

His conclusions carry public policy implications for homeless populations. In Greensboro and surrounding areas in Guilford County, N.C., nearly 1,000 people experience homelessness each night. Many respondents reported no previous drug addictions and were tired of negative stereotypes.

“Our social interventions need to be broader,” Goldberg said. “Leadership education could be a positive way to empower individuals to improve their lives and get off the streets.”

Goldberg’s interest in leadership developed as a young adolescent. Initially placed in grade school special education classes because of auditory processing limitations and dyslexia, Goldberg grew tired of teachers acting like he hadn’t learned to read, and he soon started advocating for placement in mainstream courses.

It took time and lobbying, Goldberg recalled, but attitudes changed among family and teachers when he readily accepted outside tutoring. Not coincidentally, he also developed self-confidence after he joined the Boy Scouts at the same time. His academic performance quickly soared.

“No one really believed me or gave me the opportunity to be in mainstream classes,” Goldberg said. “I realized I needed to be a self-advocate. I had the right to fail, which meant that I had the right to try.”

That same determination led him to Elon as a Leadership Fellow. Over the past four years, Goldberg has proven to be an influential voice in several campus organizations, including the Center for Leadership, the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, Elon Hillel and the Handmade Co-Op, which supports local artists and helps sell art that creates a positive impact on the community.

Goldberg’s success at Elon University helped secure him a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship for next year in South Korea. He leaves in July for an overseas assignment that he hopes will let him share his knowledge about leadership.

“If there’s an opportunity, I want to try it,” he said. “Even if it’s challenging or difficult, opportunities are there to grow from.”

CELEBRATE! Is Elon University’s annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. For more information, visit elon.edu/celebrate.

Eric Townsend,
4/30/2014 8:00 AM