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Leadership: Why perceptions matter

20th Jan 2012
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Birgit Schyns, professor of organisational behaviour at Durham Business School, writes about the perceptions of leadership within organisations.
While in the research and practice of leadership we often focus on the leader as a person or his/her behaviour, the role of followers is often neglected. However, followers constitute the context in which leaders operate and there is a long-standing argument, going back to Weber's charisma theory, that leaders can only be leaders if they have followers. So, one of the obvious questions to ask is why do people follow and how are leaders 'granted' influence (De Rue & Ashforth, 2010).
Recent research is looking at followers' (and others') images or stereotypes of leaders (commonly known as implicit leadership theories) and how they influence how we see leaders. For example, if someone thinks of leaders as charismatic, almost any behaviour shown by a person labelled 'leader' could be interpreted as a sign of charisma. This notion shifts the focus from the leader to the follower, in the sense that a leader's behaviour is less important for the leadership process than the perception of that leader by his/her followers. The consequences for leadership development can be quite severe in that we train leaders to behave in certain ways but if ultimately followers do not perceive this behaviour as 'leader-like', the leader will find it difficult to exert influence over his/her followers.
"There are cultural commonalities that may explain our preference for certain leaders. This makes leadership particularly difficult in a cross-cultural context, where leaders' and followers' implicit leadership theories clash."
While these implicit leadership theories are different for everyone, there are cultural commonalities that may explain our preference for certain leaders. This makes leadership particularly difficult in a cross-cultural context, where leaders' and followers' implicit leadership theories clash. I was once told a story by a Dutch employee whose company had been taken over by a US company. He complained that his new US boss actually told him what to do. Clearly, from his Dutch background, this was an impossible leadership style (indeed, I was told once that a good Dutch follower always questions his/her supervisor and might or might not be convinced – rather than told – to do something).
 
We find similar examples in the public domain, such as football, which is an area I am researching. Think about the discussion of Fabio Capello's leadership style. For a while, he was hailed for his success and considered a good leader. As soon as wins failed to materialise the same person (presuming the same style of leadership), was considered inappropriate as, as a foreigner, he would not understand his English team. This is where another, more general theory about leaders comes into play: There is a general tendency to make leaders responsible for success and failure of organisations, often irrespective of any other possible influencing factors.
This phenomenon was introduced by a prominent leadership scholar, James Meindl, in 1985. Apart from Fabio Capello, many examples of this phenomenon are in the public domain. The sacking of Steve Bruce from Sunderland AFC is just the latest example. While we know from prior research that changing managers is not necessarily the best way to increase performance, the sacking of managers is a common ritual. The manager serves as a convenient scapegoat and by sacking the manager, the team is seen to deal with an unsatisfactory situation and placate unhappy fans.
What does that say about leadership? Leaders are often judged by the performance of their company or team, whether or not they have an influence on that performance. At the same time, in order to successfully influence followers to achieve performance, they need to fit the image that their followers have of leaders in general.

Birgit is professor in organisational behaviour at Durham University, UK. She received her PhD from the University of Leipzig, Germany in 2001. She has published widely on topics including Leader-Member Exchange, transformational leadership, implicit leadership theories, followers' perception of leadership as well as employability. She is an associate editor for European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology and British Journal of Management and serves on several editorial boards.

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