The heroic leader swooping in to save a business from certain death, a trail of devoted followers in their wake.We all love a good character and the role of the leader is one that we are endlessly fascinated with....
A quick Google search on ‘how to be a great leader’ brings back 460 million results indicating our insatiable need to understand leadership, emulate our favourite leaders and uncover just what the magic is that makes someone a great leader.
But are we foisting characteristics that don’t exist on our leaders, putting all of our faith in them and ending up disproportionately upset when they show that they are actually human? In other words, are we viewing leadership through romantic, rose-tinted glasses?
Back in 1985, academics Meindl, Ehrlich and Dukerich said that leadership remains largely elusive and enigmatic and predicted that our “obsessions and celebrations of it will persist”. Fast forward over 30 years and leadership has certainly retained our fascination, but also perhaps our romanticised view.
Meindl & co said that leadership has been imbued with mysticism and a brilliance that causes us to disregard the science, and that this romanticised view of leadership is a perception that allows us to make sense of our workplaces and complex organisational arrangements.
It’s not about leader attributes but follower perceptions
If we subscribe to this view, then it’s not necessarily the characteristics that a leader has that makes them great but rather the romantic ideals that we ascribe to them, meaning that we can sometimes overestimate the influence of leadership on performance.
Interestingly though, Meindl and colleagues point out that this romanticised view might be absolutely essential to the leader being able to do their job. Followers view their leader as an all-powerful deity, and in doing so will pull together to meet the organisation’s needs.
The scapegoat and the saviour
As always with romance though, there is a darker side. In an Applied Psychology article of 2007 Bligh and colleagues state that whilst romanticising leadership means that leaders are sometimes placed on a pedestal that allows them to reap the praise of everything positive that happens to a company, they are also in the firing line when things turn sour.
Followers view their leader as an all-powerful deity, and in doing so will pull together to meet the organisation’s needs.
And so, instead of the saviour, the leader becomes the scapegoat due to an over-attribution of blame. Their study is based on the premise that followers are more influenced by their constructions of a leader’s abilities, than the reality.
They found that when followers perceive negative or aversive leadership they are more likely to be resistant as a follower and less likely to see their job positively.
Leaders also play their part
But it appears that leaders themselves are also in on the act. Grey and Densten put forward the leader-centric theory which suggests that leaders are as involved in the development and maintenance of the romanticised view of leadership as followers.
They found that as leaders benefit from romanticised views of their leadership, they not only bought into these romanticised views of their own leadership (self-deception) but sought to influence others to do the same through image management techniques.
To woo or not to woo
When we consider Grey and Denston’s notions of image management utilised by leaders to “woo” followers added to their assertion that “it would be a romantic notion to contemplate that leaders could ever behave in a totally authentic manner” we can begin to doubt the efficacy of the romantic view of leadership for both leader and follower.
Indeed, the authors say that when followers have these romantic ideals of leadership they can lead to unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations. They add, that as transformational leadership is hinged on trust and credibility, efforts on the leader’s part to influence follower perceptions can actually backfire.
They suggest that leaders need to understand how impression management tactics can impact upon followers.
Finding the sweet spot
Yes, we might sometimes have a romanticised view of leadership, and yes leaders might sometimes perpetuate this idealised myth. But that doesn’t mean that all leaders are ineffectual, and underserving of the praise, or even, at times the criticism.
Leaders need to understand how impression management tactics can impact upon followers.
Perhaps in our endless fascination to understand leadership, we are really trying to understand how to hit that sweet spot of creating an image of a leader that says powerful and capable; one that motivates followers to work alongside us to meet organisational goals, yet at the same time, allows us to be authentic, and doesn’t necessitate us to bandy around unrealistic ideals that bear no relation to reality.
Leadership stripped back to its bare bones would be like a life lived without any notion of romance, admiration or joy; bleak indeed.