A Leader’s #1 Focus (An Essay)

This essay discusses what should be the number one focus of a leader. It does so by looking at theory and research that identifies the dimensions for a successful leadership, to derive from this what should be a leader’s main focus points. It proposes that well-being and satisfaction of group members is part of a leadership style and one more element of the leader’s toolbox, but not a goal in itself.

This essay concludes by suggesting the number one focus of a leader must depend on the type of task, the context and the group members’ characteristics.

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Literature widely reports social influence as the crucial attribute of the leader (e.g., Burn, 2004; Chemers 2001; as cited by Tailor, Peplau & Sears, 2006). Arguably, exerting this social influence in an effective manner should be a leaders main goal and, for this reason, the discussion on a leader’s main goal should be the discussion on the factors that make a leader effective.

Research on what makes a leader effective is vastly dominated by two sets of approaches – the leader oriented approaches and the transactional approaches – with later currents accentuating the leader-follower dynamics as another key element for effectiveness and success. All these topics are described next.

 

The leader oriented approaches

In the 1940s, an Ohio State University research group developed the Leader Behaviour Description Questionnaire (LBDQ) with the intention of summarising the main aspects of leadership behaviours. Out of the LBDQ two leadership dimensions were identified: initiating structure, underlying the leader’s capacity to be task-oriented; and consideration, underlying the leader’s capacity to be people-oriented (2010, Schulz-Hardt & Brodbeck). A recent study by Judge Piccolo and Ilies (2004, cited in Schulz-Hardt et al, 2010) found that both dimensions have a moderately strong correlation with leadership effectiveness.

The task oriented leaders put their focus on directing or organising the group to make sure the goal or task assigned to the group is the first priority for group members. These leaders are efficient and have a good knowledge on the task the group needs to carry out. On the other hand, people-oriented leaders focus on emotional and interpersonal aspects, concentrate on group well-being and promote group cohesion and stability. These leaders are friendly, amenable and peace-making who are concerned with the members feelings (Tailor et al, 2006).

These two types of leadership dimensions are confirmed by cross cultural studies (Hui, 1990, as cited by Tailor et al, 2006). In particular, a study made in Japan established that four types of leaders can be found as a result of the combination of the two dimensions. Hybrid leaders that emphasize both results and well-being are more effective across many professional backgrounds. (Misumu, 1995, as cited by Tailor et al, 2006). This supports the idea that a leader’s main goal cannot rest with the well-being of the group.

Recent research has also shown that task orientation is more susceptible to situational differences, being positively associated with satisfaction in some cases and not in others (2010, Schulz-Hardt et al).

Already in the 1940s, a study from the University of Michigan departed from the individual leader perspective. This study identified four dimensions of  leadership: interactive facilitation, work facilitation, goal emphasis and individual support. Effective work groups require the four dimensions to be operating and, as long as all are present, more than one person of the group can be the source. (2010, Schulz-Hardt et al). This suggest a leaders’ goal in the group might be a function of the leadership dimensions provided by other members of the group.

 

Contingency oriented approaches

Many contingency theories have been developed over the last years. Fred Fiedler (1965, as cited by Martin, Carlson & Buskist, 2010) developed the contingency model of leadership effectiveness. Similarly to the leader oriented approaches, he identified two styles of leaders: task-oriented leaders (emphasis is on the group task) and relationship-oriented leaders (emphasis is on relations).

Fiedler also classified group situations along a situational control continuum. In high control situations, leaders have legitimate authority, good relations with members and are presented with tasks that are well structured. In low control situations, leaders lack legitimacy, have a bad relation with member and are faced with tasks which are not well structured. Fiedler argued that task-oriented leaders are more effective at the extreme ends of the continuum, while relationship-oriented leaders are effective when moderate control is required. (Martin et al, 2010). This model introduces a further variable in the leaders goal of exerting influence in an effective manner.

Interestingly but not surprising, the effectiveness of a leader might be gender dependent. Women leading man with an task oriented style come out untrustworthy and are often disliked (2010, Schulz-Hardt et al), independently of the general effectiveness of the style. To overcome this barrier women often introduce characteristics of the relationship-oriented style.

House proposed another contingency theory known as the Path-goal theory. This theory highlights that leaders are most effective when they are able to produce, with their own behaviour,  an increase in motivation, satisfaction and ability to perform in the group members. House identifies five classes of behaviours leaders must be able to use dynamically: clarifying behaviour (i.e., reducing ambiguity), work facilitation behaviour (i.e. make sure the working conditions exist for the group to perform), participative behaviour (i.e., consulting and involving followers), supportive behaviour (i.e., creating a friendly environment), and achievement oriented behaviour (i.e., setting clear goals). The extent to which these factors will be successful will depend on the followers characteristics and the characteristics of the environment (1996, as cited by Schulz-Hardt et al, 2010).

The Path-goal theory introduced one important element: a leader’s effectiveness – and, therefore, a leader’s main goal – will be a function of its followers’ characteristics.

 

Transactional and Transformational approaches

Hollander (1955, as cited by Martin et al, 2010) proposed that the effectiveness of leaders is dependent on their ability to accumulate idiosyncratic credits. In a first instance, leaders should conform to the group norms; second, leaders should ensure they are perceived as legitimate leaders; third, leaders should ensure they are perceived as competent; finally, leaders should identify with the group’s ideals and ambitions. By collecting these idiosyncratic credits, leaders will be able to exert influence in an effective manner. They will also be able to more easily innovate and deviate from the group norm.

The transactional approach to leadership proposed by Hollander highlights  the role of followers in determining the leadership style and proposes a methodology that allows leaders to deviate, when necessary, from a relationship-oriented style  without endangering their leadership.

The transformational approach to leadership recognizes that some leaders go beyond achieving the goal ahead. The transformational leader seeks to open new possibilities in their followers minds; their goal is to inspire and promote change (2010, Schulz-Hardt et al). Many times working towards the goal will only benefit future generations and possible will hinder the people responsible for undertaking the change. In this case, the well-being of the group members is certainly not the main goal, although these will be embedded by a sense of mission that will come together with a sense of satisfaction.

The transformation approach to leadership was further developed by Bass (1985 as cited by Schulz-Hardt et al, 2010) to include four subdimensions: idealised influence (being an example); Inspirational motivation (provide a vision); Intellectual stimulation (stimulate and encourage and individualised consideration (attending to each follower individually).

 

Social Identity theory for leadership

More recently, Social Identity theorists proposed that followers have schemas on how a leader should be. The degree to which leaders will be accepted will be determined by how they fits in these schemas. Another key aspect influencing the effectiveness of the leaders is their prototypicality to the group. Leaders who are prototypical of the group are better able to introduce changes and innovate. (Hogh, 2005) Arguably, it should be one of the leaders goals to be perceived as prototypical of the group as this will have an effect on their capacity to exert social influence.

 

Some words of attention

Schulz-Hardt et al (2010) mention that many studies on leadership use cross-sectional designs which do not allow for causal inferences between leadership behaviour and leadership success. This means that leaders might use a certain leadership style because the group allows it. An example would be a leader which can afford to be relaxed and caring because the group is competent and focused on executing the task. In this case, the success factor might be erroneously be attributed to the leader being focused on the well-being and satisfaction of the group. The researchers also mention another issue that can arise from cross-sectional designs, known as the “third variable problem”: the correlation between consideration on the part of the leaders and high performance on the part of the followers might simply be due to mutual sympathy and trust.

 

To conclude, the current theory and research on leadership indicates that a leader’s main goal is not static. It will depend on situational factors, that encompass the nature of the group’s task, the nature of the people in the group and the social environment in which the task is carried out. The leader will need to make a dynamic use of the leadership style spectrum at his disposal to make sure he can accomplish what is at the end his or her main goal: to exert social influence. And it might well be that during the leadership journey the leader will find himself using Hamlet’s words: I must be cruel only to be kind.

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