Leadership May Not Come From Leaders But From Situations That Demand Leadership

February 8, 2007 8:45 am Published by

As I have stated in an earlier post, the January 2007 edition of the American Psychologist reviews the psychological research on leadership.

I would like to share some thoughts from a fascinating article entitled, “The Role of the Situation in Leadership” by Victor Vroom (professor at Yale) & Arthur Jago (professor at the University of Missouri).

The authors start out by curtly stating:

“the term leadership, despite its popularity, is not a scientific term with a formal, standardized definition. . .(and) there are almost a s many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.”

But they do summarize:

“virtually all definitions of leadership share the view that leadership involves the process of influence… There are, in fact, a myriad of processes by which successful influence can occur (including) threats, the promise of rewards, well-reasoned technical arguments, and inspirational appeals… Exhibiting leadership means not only influencing others but also doing so in a manner that enables the organization to attain its goals.”

Vroom & Lago then present their own definition of leadership:

“a process of motivating people to work together collaboratively to accomplish great things.”

Interestingly, they then attempt to debunk the idea that there are great leaders – and this is the reason researchers have not been able to find common traits of good leaders.

The opposite position – that leadership is solely determined by situational factors – has some merit based on the following arguments:

“a) Leaders have very limited power (much less than is attributed to them); b) candidates for a given leadership position will have gone through the same selection screen that will drastically curtail their differences: and c) any remaining differences among people will be overwhelmed by situational demands in the leadership role.”

However, Vroom & Jago argue that we must look at “contingency theories” – that is, looking at “the kinds of persons and behaviors who are effective in different situations.”

[A side note: this reminds me of the research which occurred in psychology regarding counseling and psychotherapy. In the 1960’s & 70’s, researchers were looking for those qualities of therapists or characteristics of therapy that led to positive results for clients. Ultimately, this line of research failed – with the exception of identifying some core therapist behaviors that seem to be helpful – maintaining eye contact,, not being distracted with other things, and responding in ways that make the client feel “heard”. However, in the ‘80’s & 90’s, psychologists asked a different set of questions: What characteristics, behaviors or processes are most impactful in helping xxx types of clients with yyy types of problems? This had led to significant findings in knowing how to better to help individuals with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, anger management problems and so on. The therapist’s behaviors and the processes used in counseling for each specific problem must differ, if they are to be effective.]

Now, one researcher named Fielder has proposed that a person’s leadership style is an enduring characteristic that can’t be changed. Thus, good leadership occurs when a leader is placed in a situation that is favorable to his or her style. If this is not possible, then the next best option is to “engineer the job to fit the manager”.

Vroom & Jago then summarize their research which has specifically looked at the interaction between when& how a leader involves their subordinates in decision-making. They have looked at situational variables and different styles of involvement. It all gets a bit deep (for me, at least) but some major themes they have found are that leaders use decision rules that help them respond to combinations of situations. For example, good leaders allow more participation by group members when the members possess knowledge or expertise in the problem area. Also, their approach to conflict also varies. Good leaders seek less participation from members when commitment to the decision is required and are more participative when the members’ acceptance of a
Decision is voluntary.

Vroom & Jago summarize their article with the following points:

  1. Organizational effectiveness is affected by situational factors not under the leader’s control.
  2. Situations shape how leaders behave.
  3. Situations influence the consequences of leader behavior.

The authors criticize the tendency of writers of popular leadership books to focus on simple maxims (“place your trust in people”, “the customer must come first”) without paying attention to the situational factors in which these behaviors make sense – and when they don’t. They emphasize that:

“Actions must be tailored to fit the demands of each situation. A leadership style that is effective in one situation may prove completely ineffective in a different situation.”

What does all of this mean practically? I believe as leaders in different roles and different types of organizations, we need to begin to ask ourselves some questions:

*What are the current situational circumstances of my organization?-are members there voluntarily or involuntarily?
-is there a clear, commonly share vision?
-is it an atmosphere of sufficient resources to do the tasks at hand, or is there a paucity of resources?
-is the survival of the organization a current issue?
-are there clear, well-defined roles and responsibilities among members or are they highly fluid?
-do members have much shared life experience together, or very little?*What types of leadership behaviors appear to be appropriate, given our circumstances?
-does there need to be a high level of participation in decision-making or would this lead to confusion and conflict?
-does there need to be more focus on team-building or task- completion currently (or some combination of both)?
-is a more decisive style needed currently or should there be more of a laid-back approach, to let leadership develop among other team members?

I am intrigued to try to figure out what behaviors and actions are needed in my current roles of leadership, and I am going to strive to be observant of these issues as I go through my day.


Published by
February 8, 2007 8:45 am

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