In this blog post, I wanted to explore the notion of ‘leadership effectiveness’ which is something both consultants and our clients are deeply interested in defining, creating and achieving.

This might seem like an ‘old news’ topic to some because there are approximately 131,000,000 Google hits and 2,540,000 Google Scholar hits on the topic. Furthermore, there is a plethora of academic and applied literature espousing many definitions, models, frameworks and approaches of leadership effectiveness. However, some two centuries on, we are still debating and seeking to define what constitutes effective leadership. In this post, I will not attempt to propose an all-encompassing definition of leadership effectiveness. Instead, I propose shifting the lens through which we view leadership which I hope helps shape other ways in which leadership can be assessed and developed.

I chose to write my PhD thesis on attachment theory and leadership, specifically using Bowlby’s (1969/1982) model of human bonding and relationship functioning as a framework in which to situate the study of leadership. I argued that leadership is dyadic in nature because it does not exist without another person to lead, thus at its core, leadership is relationship. However the vast majority of research on leadership has focused on the leader only i.e., defining the personal characteristics that the leader possesses that shape their effectiveness as a leader. Much less research has examined the study of effective leadership from the follower’s perspective. This is somewhat surprising because leadership is not an individual experience, instead it is created and determined by the outputs of others. Thus, leadership is in “the eyes of the beholder”. A leader may think they are effective and self-report on many measures as such, but their effectiveness is actually measured by the performance and engagement of those they lead. Thus, it is the interpretation of leadership behaviour, not the behaviour per se that constitutes effectiveness and determines the quality of leader-follower relationships and workplace outcomes.

Assessing leadership using multi-rater measures are one way of ensuring that data on leadership effectiveness is collected from those who hold perceptions of leadership effectiveness (i.e., direct reports, peers, customers etc), however a deeper understanding of what shapes followers’ perceptions of leadership effectiveness is warranted. In other words, whilst leaders determine outcomes ultimately through their own behaviour and choices, those outcomes that arguably define ‘leadership effectiveness’ are demonstrated by team members and in turn shaped by the team members’ own behaviour, choices and perceptions of leadership.

 

What Shapes Perceptions of Leadership

Given the significance of team member or follower perceptions in determining the outcomes of the leader, a deeper understanding of what shapes these perceptions of leadership effectiveness is critical. This may be achieved by…

  1. Gaining insight into a team member’s implicit theories of leadership that predict their expectations and perceptions of effective leadership. Research has suggested that the higher the correspondence between a follower’s implicit theory of leadership and their leader’s behaviour, the more satisfied followers are with their leaders’ behaviour and with the workplace (Epitropaki & Martin, 2005). Be mindful of ‘similar to me bias’ where leaders may choose to recruit team members who are ‘like them’ but work hard to understand what team members bring to the equation.
  2. Unearthing information through recruitment and development processes on an employee’s relationship history (i.e., how they form relationships with others, the extent to which they role model the behaviours of others and why). A follower’s own views and perceptions of effective leadership are argued to be associated with their past relationship experiences (Keller, 1999; Keller, 2003; Keller & Cacioppe, 2001; Shalit, Popper & Zakay, 2010). Indeed, a follower’s mental representation of how close relationships function can shape expectations and appraisals of effective leadership. Keller (1999) found that an individual’s ‘ideal leader’ mirrored their views of relationships more generally, irrespective of whether these views were associated with leaders encompassing positive characteristics such as trustworthiness and supportiveness or negative characteristics such as being dictatorial and tyrannical.
  3. Balancing self-report measures of leadership with other data points (such as multi-rater, customer feedback, peer appraisals) that yield insight into perceptions of a leader’s effectiveness.

A final point to keep in mind – an individual’s perception is their reality, thus aligning leader and follower perceptions by understanding the myriad of influences, experiences and exposures that shape those perceptions is critical given the dyadic nature of leadership.

 

References

Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and Loss: Vol 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). NY: Basic Books.

Epitropaki, O., & Martin, R. (2005b). From ideal to real: A longitudinal study of the role of implicit leadership theories on leader-member exchange and employee outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 659-678.

Keller, T. (1999). Images of the familiar: individual differences and implicit leadership theories. Leadership Quarterly, 10, 589-607.

Keller, T. (2003). Parental images as a guide to leadership sensemaking: an attachment perspective on implicit leadership theories. Leadership Quarterly, 14, 141-160.

Keller, T., & Cacioppe, R. (2001). Leader-follower attachments: Understanding parental images at work. Leader & Organization Development Journal, 22, 70-75.

Shalit, A., Popper, M., & Zakay, M. (2010). Followers‟ attachment styles and their preference for social or for personal charismatic leaders. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31, 458-472.

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