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Leadership is probably one of the most prominent topics of mainstream organizational research. Even the most ineffective companies have the potential to become flourishing organizations if they are led and inspired by a talented, charismatic leader.
Contemporary organizations go to unbelievable lengths to acquire and retain at least one prospective leader. The focus of the present work is the analysis of an interview conducted with a business leader. The interview was framed around several leadership theories and frameworks. It was designed to test the boundaries of present-day leadership theories and knowledge from the perspective of an experienced leader. The results of the interview confirm that the most popular leadership theories steadily lose their relevance, giving place to the emergence of new, instrumental leadership philosophies.
Leadership Interview: Leader Identity
The interview was conducted with a famous business leader, whose identity will not be revealed for the purposes of confidentiality. The choice of the leader (S.B.) was justified by the enormous success she has achieved within her organization. The woman began as an ordinary supervisor in a small pharmaceutical firm. With time, she started to notice significant gaps in the company’s financial and organizational performance. She made a brave step and filed a detailed report to the management team, specifying the issues and proposing policies to resolve them. Today, she is the CEO of a large pharmaceutical conglomerate that is claimed to have one of the best rates of job satisfaction and employee retention in the pharmaceutical sector.
Another reason why S.B. was asked to participate in the interview is because she is a woman. Gender has always been a controversial subject of leadership theory and empirical analysis. The number of women in executive positions constantly increases, but they are not even close to being as powerful as their male colleagues. As Rohmann and Rowold (2009, p. 545) write, women still seem to be hitting the glass ceiling, as they seek to climb up the executive career ladder. S.B. seems to have successfully coped with her leadership and executive mission, turning into a role model for many other female leaders. Her answers were expected to produce a refreshing and provocative picture of what it takes to be a leader in the 21st century.
Scholars and practitioners in organizational research have developed numerous definitions of leadership. One of the most popular ones was provided by Yukl (2002, p. 8): “leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.”
Leadership implies that the leader and followers come together to work as a team for the purpose of setting shared objectives and defining the most productive ways of achieving them. This being said, leadership always displays four essential characteristics: (1) it is a process; (2) it is influence; (3) it occurs in a group setting; and (4) it is about pursuing ambitious goals (Northouse 2004, p.1). The fifth domain of leadership is relatively new: all goals, principles, values, and decisions should be shared by leaders and their followers (Northouse 2004, p.1). S.B. was asked to comment upon her views on leadership.
The leader agrees that leadership crosses the boundaries of individual decision making and always occurs within a group setting. She admits that it is a continuous process not only because it is based on regular leader-follower interactions but because it lacks any temporal dimension. Simply stated, a person who assumes the role of a leader either has to play that role 24 hours a day or give up his/her leadership mission. According to S.B., the concept of leadership should be expanded to incorporate other tangible elements, such as regular encounters with other leaders, interactive conferences and video chatting with the board of directors, and others.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, S.B. does not consider herself to be the final element in the chain of command. Traditionally, leaders are perceived to operate at the very top of the organizational hierarchy. They exert influence on their followers to achieve the desired strategic end. However, S.B. supposes that the traditional perspective does not reflect the complex realities of effective leadership in contemporary organizations. The complexity of postmodern organizational environments imposes new roles and responsibilities on leaders, demanding greater involvement in decisions and affairs beyond the scope of a single organization. This is what Groysberg and Slind (2012) describe as being an interactive leader. Through the years, S.B. has learned to act as an intermediary between the external world and her followers. She says that her everyday obligations are not limited to leading and influencing the followers. Leadership is a process of receiving and transforming external information in ways that can be easily understood by followers. For instance, S.B. keeps in touch with the board of directors and translates their strategic expectations into measurable tactical goals her followers can easily attain. She seems to be more realistic than many leadership theorists, even though the effects of leadership theories on her practice cognition should not be ignored.
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Five-Factor Personality Inventory: Leadership Reconsidered
The five-factor personality inventory remains one of the fundamental frameworks for evaluating and understanding the meaning of leadership. It incorporates five basic traits which, according to McCrae and John (1992, p. 175), display relative stability across different personality types. Such traits/dimensions include: extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness (Judge & Bono 2000, p. 751). The extent to which they are visible in a particular leader varies considerably and represents an important prism for leadership analysis.
Based on the five-factor model of personality proposed by McCrae and Costa (1997), S.B. ranks her features and qualities in the following ways. First, she does not perceive herself as being prone to stress and neuroticism. She used to experience chronic stresses at the very beginning of her leadership career. Her nervous tensions were attributed principally to the lack of professional experience and low self-esteem. Today, she is focused more on her positive than negative sides. One of them is extraversion, which S.B. believes to be at the heart of her leadership success. As mentioned earlier, the leader feels that she is an intermediary element in the development of sustained interactions between her followers and the rest of the world. She is open to novelty and ready to translate the most ambitious innovations into tangible organizational improvements. She also states that she is equally agreeable and conscientious. The latter manifests as the leader’s ability to organize and direct her professional behaviors in various organizational circumstances (McCrae & John 1992, p. 197).
What S.B. does not agree with is that the five-factor model of personality is an indispensable element of leadership analysis. In her view, the assumption that the five personality traits are stable and universal is highly questionable (McCrae & Costa 1997). Based on her experience, stability is the worst enemy of every leader. What drives effective leadership in a highly complex organizational environment is every leader’s ability to be flexible and adaptive to the changeable conditions of professional performance. Here, Antonakis and House (2014, p. 746) suggest that “leadership is essential for organizational innovation, adaptation, and performance.” Neither innovation nor adaptation is possible without promoting flexibility in leadership approaches and utilizing a full range of personal talents and capacities beyond the basics proposed by the five-factor personality model. S.B. is highly critical of the five-factor model and claims that it will hardly sustain over time.
S.B. says that, whenever she tries to evaluate her leadership efficacy or the professional effectiveness of her followers, traits are the last thing to consider. She constantly discovers new facets of organizational success, which do not fit into traditional leadership theories and explanations. For example, her agreeableness and extraversion could suggest that she is a transformational leader (Judge & Bono 2000, p. 751). Yet, she is not. The leader cites the most recent research findings, which deny the relevance of traits in leadership decisions. She refers to Adams (2014), who claims that neuroticism is a better predictor of performance productivity than extraversion or openness. S.B. is committed to uniqueness. She does not think that any trait could make a positive distinction between the followers or leaders, who display the same amount of ambition for goal attainment or productive work. What she knows is that leadership is highly contextual (Northouse 2004, p. 3). More importantly, any person can become a productive leader (Northouse 2004, p. 3). Still, the ambition for leadership should grow from within. In other words, emergent leadership is more effective than assigned leadership (Northouse 2004, p. 4). In many respects, S.B. supports and reinforces the validity of the emergence versus effectiveness framework proposed by Lord, Vader and Alliger (1986, p. 402).
Leader: Emerging or Effective?
The concepts of leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness have their roots in leadership trait research – a model S.B. rejects in its entirety. Lord et al. (1986, p. 402) conceptualize leadership emergence as the presence of certain behaviors and traits, coupled with the environmental conditions that favor the development and subsequent expansion of one’s leadership capacity. According to Deaux and Snyder (2012, p. 675), leader emergence implies the presence and utilization of certain leadership qualities. Some of them can also be borrowed from the five-factor personality model. As a leader, S.B> emerged in a situation when her team did not have any formal or informal leader. She has become a productive leader, due to her strong ambition to succeed and willingness to lead and influence her followers. The woman recognizes that her managers had been particularly sensitive to her organizational performance reports and empowered her to exercise her talents and abilities to the fullest extent. Nevertheless, S.B. is not willing to view leadership emergence as a static category; nor is she willing to admit that leadership emergence is necessarily followed by leadership effectiveness.
S.B. does not agree with the way leadership theorists describe the power of leadership emergence and its implications for organizational effectiveness. On the one hand, the nature and complexity of leadership emergence vary substantially across organizations. In some situations, leaders emerge, because others perceive them as being more knowledgeable and influential (Northouse 2004, p. 5). S.B. says that her colleagues and future followers were particularly skeptical of her emergence as a leader.
Rather, it is the support of management and other members of the organizations that encouraged her gradual transformation into a self-sufficient leader. Moreover, at the initial stages of her leadership development, she lacked the power a leader needs to be accepted and liked by followers (Northouse 2004, p.5). Therefore, she had to do the double job – working towards the established organizational goals and creating a positive image of her leadership personality within the organization.
S.B. says that she did not have the traits that are claimed to be essential for every leader. For instance, she failed to display individualized consideration, which represents a vital element of transformational leadership (Judge & Piccolo 2004, p. 755). She could not attend to the unique needs of her followers, being focused primarily on attaining the goals set by the board. She worked hard to develop a mission that was equally inspirational and comprehensive for her followers. Even now, the woman does not present herself as a transformational leader. She has emerged as a combination of numerous traits and unique capacities, with a strong ambition and an explicit understanding of the organizational goals she had to achieve. It took her a long time to translate emergence into effectiveness. Today, she confesses that her leadership style does not fit into any of the traditional models ever proposed in literature. S.B. is convinced that an emergent leader can become effective, only when he/she is capable of borrowing the best from theory, adapting to the realities of organizational performance, and developing a style and features that make him/her unique and recognizable by followers. The interviewee does not accept the most traditional categorizations of leadership. She seems to be exercising a totally new model of leadership which is sometimes described as “instrumental”.
Leader-Member Exchange, Transformational and Transactional Leadership, and Instrumental Approaches to Decision Making
Although S.B. rejects the most conventional leadership approaches, she seems to display the most salient features of several different styles. When it comes to transformational leadership, she has charisma and uses intellectual stimulation to develop new ideas by challenging the most established assumptions (Judge & Piccolo 2004, p. 755). This is what she accomplished when she was still a regular supervisor in a small pharmaceutical firm: the woman was brave enough to develop her unique vision of the company problems and present that vision to managers. By challenging the organizational status quo, she acquired a strong impetus for her subsequent growth as a professional leader. As a transactional leader, S.B. develops short-term goals and priorities to make it easier for her followers to pursue the most ambitious long-term objectives (Judge & Piccolo 2004, p. 755).
Simultaneously, she is inherently relationship-oriented. In her view, which resonates with the leader-member exchange theory, “the quality of the relationship that develops between a leader and a follower is predictive of outcomes at the individual, group, and organizational levels of analysis” (Gerstner & Day 1997, p. 827). Such relationships greatly influence the levels of job satisfaction and turnover rates within companies (Jordan & Troth 2011, p. 260). S.B. has but to acknowledge that the leader-member exchange framework has had outstanding influences on her development as a leader, and it is due to her strong relationship orientation that she has managed to achieve and sustain high job satisfaction scores among employees, followed by a massive decrease in turnover rates.
The leadership style adopted by S.B. once again confirms that transformational and transactional leadership should not be perceived as the opposite sides of the same leadership continuum. Rather, they exemplify the two complementary sources of leadership power and leadership emergence potential. S.B. says that she does not know how to define her leadership choices. She suggests that the leadership behaviors and tendencies she displays today may readily shift tomorrow, if the circumstances of organizational performance demand and justify such transformations. Regardless of any such changes, attainment of organizational goals and the thorough analysis of follower needs are S.B.’s two leadership priorities.
This is why her leadership can be described as “pragmatic” or “instrumental”, as proposed by Antonakis and House (2014, p. 749).
The focus of the discussed leadership model is on efficacy beyond emotions (Antonakis & House 2014, p. 749). S.B. confesses that, at times, she looks too “functional” at the expense of being charismatic or inspirational. She prefers using her expert knowledge rather than intuition, when making responsible organizational decisions. As mentioned earlier in the interview, S.B. absorbs novelty from the external organizational environment and translates it into comprehensive knowledge that facilitates goal attainment among her followers. She is instrumental to the extent that enables her to retain an image of a powerful and knowledgeable strategic leader, who does not leave any space for compassion but demands that her followers become as diligent and devoted to the organizational mission as she is.
Leadership is a continuous process of interactions among leaders and followers. Different leaders develop and present different views on what it takes to be a leader in the 21st century. It is not uncommon for contemporary leaders to step away from the most conventional models of leadership theory and practice. Many of them develop new conceptualizations of leadership, based on their experience and expertise. S.B. is a renowned female leader. She was asked to participate in the interview to present her unique views on leadership. In her opinion, leadership is no longer limited to a single organization. It entails the need for every leader to broaden the scope of his/her interactions beyond the organizational setting. As such, she positions herself as an intermediary element between her followers and the rest of the world. She feels responsible for absorbing new information and translating it into comprehensive and measurable goals her followers can easily achieve. Her leadership style incorporates numerous features.
However, it cannot be categorized as any of the conventional models of leadership that have been extensively described in literature. In reality, S.B. is an example of a postmodern instrumental leader, who is knowledgeable, ambitious, and diligent.