The journey towards social business typically involves a significant shift in how an organisation, and of course its employees, behave. Thus the role of so called transformative leadership has come in for significant scrutiny as organisations seek to make that shift as effectively as possible. The academic literature around transformative leadership is mixed, with replicability a particular problem.
A new piece of research suggests that many of the failures in transformative leadership occur precisely because they’re not really needed. The researchers suggest that transformational leaders effectiveness focuses primarily on their ability to influence their followers’ feelings.
This leadership style is defined by an ‘intense emotional component’, and its associated behaviours include offering personalised care and concern, demonstrating selflessness, generating optimism for the present and future, and making people feel safe to think dangerously.
The researchers suggest that these kind of behaviours get followers of that leader into a state of so called positive affect (PA), and it’s this mental state that then corresponds with their high levels of creative and productive actions.
This particular paper wanted to explore a simple hypothesis – how effective is method of leadership if the followers already felt good about things?
To do so, they asked participants from a pharmaceutical company to rate their level of positive affect, so in this instance how positively they see the world and the level of energy and curiosity they bring to it. The group were then asked to rate their bosses in terms of their transformative leadership style, with the leaders then rating the employees in return for their positive behaviours.
The prediction was that those with low PA scores would benefit from the emotional lift and support that transformational leadership can supply, with a subsequent boost in performance. Those with already high PA scores however would be unaffected by their leader and their performance would remain static.
The results? Perhaps not surprisingly, even those with a low PA score didn’t exhibit any significant changes in their behaviour under a supposedly transformational leader.
It underlines the folly in placing all of our eggs in the basket of a heroic leader who can bend and shape their environment through little more than the force of their will and charisma. A much better approach in my opinion, is to focus instead on the environment, or system, and build such an environment that certain behaviours are encouraged, and then let employees adapt to this new environment.
Of course, that’s not quite as glamorous as believing in the leader as a hero.