Leadership Research: are we asking the right questions?

The research literature examining, defining, analyzing and exploring "leadership" is vast. But does it focus on the most important question?

A recent study published in the American Psychologist suggests that while we have learned a lot about how someone comes to be perceived as a leader and to have a successful career, we have not paid similar attention to whether or not "successful leaders" actually serve to create effective organizations.

There is no question at all about the fact that leaders can have a huge and significant impact on organizational dynamics. 

We recognize certain individuals as natural born leaders because they stand out as individuals who can create organizational culture, generate commitment, motivate workers, enhance cooperation, effect employee satisfaction and make sure that everyone is on the same page. We know a lot about why some leaders have consistently positive approval ratings. Endless studies have examined why some leaders are widely admired and how their leadership abilities have positively influenced their career trajectories.

But there is another question that is more typically left unanswered. 

 In their article, "Leadership and the Fate of Organizations," Robert B. Kaiser, Rober Hogan and S. Bartholomew Craig looked at what has been studied and what has been left unexamined. What they found is that the leadership research has "overwhelmingly focused on how leaders influence individual followers" and groups of followers.

What Kaiser and his colleagues noted is that while we know an awful lot about the role of leadership in "how the team played," we actually know little about the role of leadership with respect to the big question: "did the team win?"

When studies of leadership focus on outcome events, they typically focus on the effectiveness of the group. The problem is that it really doesn't matter how effective or successful the group is, unless they beat the other guys.

For the most part, leadership studies have not focused on objective outcome measures. Instead, they tend to focus on how the leader is perceived. 

A dull and boring manager producing consistent returns on investment would not be considered a leader. A dynamic and inspiring figure who rises through the ranks will be highly rated for leadership abilities. 

Most often, leaders gain approval because of how others "feel" about them and how they make others feel about themselves and their groups. We identify individuals as leaders for emotional reasons, and not necessarily on the basis of rational and objective measures.

In what is described as the "derailment literature," it has been found that many bright and capable individuals fail to advance, while others succeed because of their ability to "manage impressions." 

Those who advance are perceived as being leaders. Those who simply perform quietly, constantly, routinely and as expected are often overlooked. 

While it may be that "leadership" is the holy grail relative to advancement, it remains the case that as many as half of all executives fail to deliver as expected. 

This failure rate results from the fact that they are chosen because of their approval ratings, rather than actual leadership abilities. Managers are often chose because of impression, rather than substance.

The "take home message" from this study is that charisma and career success are not good measures of leadership ability

Approval ratings are subjective, and they are no substitute for measures of actual performance. Those who succeed in being perceived as leaders are consistently found to enjoy great career success. And they are well liked and appreciated by those who are called to follow. 

 But at the end of the day, no matter how well the team plays, you still have to ask: did the team win?

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.