Article submitted for Peer Review to the Association of MBA’s
David Dean Ellis LL.M MBA BA
‘A leader shapes and shares a vision which gives point to the work of others’ (Handy, 1992).
Leadership as an institution has always been associated with the concept of purpose and the implication of followers directed to that purpose. Rollinson (2010) defines leadership as “a process in which leader and followers interact in a way that enables the leader to influence the actions of the followers in a non-coercive way, towards the achievement of certain aims or objectives”. When applied to the concept of teams which for the purpose of this paper is defined as two or more people, each with separate responsibilities and/or assignments, working together for a common goal (Salas et al., 1992), leadership becomes an integral part of the understanding of how teams are formed and how they functionally work to accomplish their desired goals and objectives. In contrast to Starshevsky and Koslowsky (2006) assertion that
“When discussing a team, it seems contradictory to also talk about leadership.”
, this paper will examine leadership as fundamental to a working definition of teams as functional entities. Indeed a chronological examination of the major schools of thought on leadership, from Great man and trait theories to Transformational leadership theory will demonstrate that leadership is an indispensible element in the formation and performance of teams in modern organizations.
An examination of the various leadership theories which have been submitted by scholars over the years must necessarily start with the progenitor of “the great man and trait theories”. These theories posit that the essence of leadership was to be found in the individual who leads. A leader in essence was a “special” individual imbued with particular qualities which allowed him naturally to rise above the confines of being the average man and to assume the role of director and coordinator of his associates/ companions. These theories are being examined here together because they focus on the nature of the individual and the fitness of the individual to lead. Stodghill (1974) describes a list of leadership traits and qualities which he believed were essential to good leadership. The immediate limitation of such theories however lie in the assumption that leaders are born and not made and in the fact that particular qualities will allow an individual to assume the role of leader effectively in all situations.
In a team environment, these theories would pose particular difficulties as not all qualities listed in Stodghill’s table of traits such as “dominant” (a desire to influence others) would be appropriate to certain circumstances. In today’s environment where the emphasis in innovative industries is in the creation of teams who are self directed, as in the case of the concept of loosely associated teams practiced at Google, team structure is organized more along the lines of an all channel structure. Dominance in one team member may not necessarily be considered as a positive working trait for the team. On the other hand however, it can be seen that in more vertical structures such as the one boss or dual authority structures, the traits of a leader would have a most immediate effect on the performance of a team which is dependent on a central figure as a reference point. Despite the structure however leadership, according to Starshevsky and Koslowsky (2006) is an inevitable consequence of the formation of teams where a “dominant” member who can be referred to as a leader arises. It is not impossible therefore to imagine that the traits that this “leader” whether formally installed by the organization or informally through the natural interactions of team members would have an immediate impact on the other members of the group and eventually group performance. Trent (2004) sites the work of Zenger who states
“Formal team leaders who see themselves as “top sergeants” or as “team members with a few extra duties” greatly increase the chance of team failure.”
The behavioral school of leadership in contrast, due largely to the failure of the trait theorists’ inability to successfully identify measurable and definitive leadership traits which were applicable to all situations focused primarily on the qualities of human interaction as it relates to team performance. In this effort theorist such as Mc Gregor (1960) postulated that managers in organizations operate under different assumptions about people which he referred to as X and Y theories. Managers adopting X assumptions held a generally pessimistic view of the motivation of people as having negative attitudes to work and having an aversion to accepting responsibility as opposed to Y which held the opposite view. The result of these “assumptions” determined the leadership experience which both the manager and the subordinate would have with X leading to a more autocratic and directed leadership style and Y being more participative.
This basic theory would be further developed by Blake and Mouton’s (1964) managerial Grid which detailed a series of leadership styles based on the premises of managerial concern for people versus concern for production, with the preferred leadership style being one with the highest rating of concern for people and concern for production existing simultaneously in the same situation; a combination which scored as 9.9 on their managerial grid.
In a team setting, these theories do have significance in terms of the leadership style and a resulting effect on team performance if indeed a formal leader exists. Trent (2004) identifies several roles which team leaders should play in assuring the performance of teams which include recognizing the importance of goal setting and engaging in creative and critical thinking which are indispensible when considering the performance of teams. Here the role of the leader can be viewed as a harmonizing force which brings together the singular efforts of the individual members and transforms them into a whole. The method or leadership which the leader utilizes to accomplish this will invariably determine the response for the individual members of the group and the behavior of the leader. Indeed whether the leader is a formally installed by management or an informal dominant member of the group itself is not as relevant as how this individual relates to others. If members respond badly to the method or leadership style with which they are approached then this has immediate ramifications for team cohesion, learning and performance.
The contingency schools of thought removed the focus of leadership as an institution which exists in a vacuum and placed it squarely within the context which it operated. Theorists such as Fielder suggest that the managerial style which develops should largely depend on the concatenation of factors which had impact for the situation. Identified were three factors which sought to describe the environment where most leadership situations in organizations occur. These being the nature of leader-member relations, the complexity of the task or work to be performed and the amount of power which the manger/ Leader possessed.
When applied to teams this theory of leadership has particular significance in that teams by nature operate and are formed within an organizational environment and create their own micro environment during the forming and storming stages of their creation Tuckman (1965). An understanding of the external environment is therefore integral to any team member charged with directing the task or work to be performed and how this work is to be carried out; as this role will undoubtedly have an impact on overall team performance outcomes. Leadership therefore when viewed as a coordinating and unifying principle in this context becomes especially important. Fielder’s model realizes not only the importance of both the task orientation as well as the people orientation but also takes into account the influence of power and control invested in an individual by an organization. This is significant to the discussion on the performance of teams particularly when examining the role of the leader as a liaison to top management and advocate of the team in the organization. This bridge between the “team effort” and organization support in terms of resources is integral to the proper function and performance of teams in a task oriented business environment. Leadership here ensures performance parameters are in synchronicity with organizational expectations while translating those expectations into easily assimilated concepts which can readily be accepted by team members.
Yet another approach to leadership which has more relevance to team performance is the concept of Transformational leadership. This leadership approach sees the role of leader as having the possibility to elevate the standards, perceptions and abilities of team members and transform not only the team but the organization into a high performance environment in which motivated and capable members acting in synergy provide longer term overall benefits for the organization Bass et al (2003). This approach being different from transactional leadership which represents a more traditional outlook where leaders and members interact in a bisymmetrical formalized relationship of providing benefits and gaining advantages for work Starshevsky and Koswolsky (2006). This approach structured along the lines of mutually assured benefit is reminiscent of Leader- Member exchange theory where leaders develop exchange relationships with their subordinates over time with preferred subordinates becoming “high exchange members” through perceived loyalty to the leader and thereby securing greater personal benefits Gerstner and Day (1997).
The transactional approach in a team context does necessarily have an impact on team performance as these exchanges do have a direct bearing on subordinate motivation. If leadership only provides intervention when subordinates fail to meet organizational standards then employees or team members may only rise to organizational standards and not their true performing potential.
Transformational leadership therefore provides a formula for motivating team members beyond the level of acceptable team performance and to an actualized standard of operation. A team with a transformational leader has as its mandate to reach higher standards and longer lasting results than the short term task outcome required by the organization. In addition this form of leadership with its reliance on member development seems more suited to the modern business environment which is subject to constant change and adjustment over a “business as usual” construct.
It is arguable however that the transient nature of teams does not warrant a major restructuring of the values of the members or the personalized attention associated with transformational leadership. Indeed in a modern context, the use of virtual teams renders transformational leadership and most difficult to accomplish because of the functional challenge posed by geography and distance. Added to this is the problem of cross national practices, norms and mores which a transformational leader working in a virtual team context or working outside his national boundary may experience in instituting measures and behaviors which he may perceive to be inspiring but may actually have the opposite or catastrophic effect on team morale and performance.
In summary it can be seen that leadership as an institution does in fact contribute to team performance regardless of the style or framework applied. While it is arguable that in a modern context the value of teams lie in their ability to be self directed and motivated in response to the realities of the turbulent economic environment, the realities of human interaction and the fact that every gathering of human beings must necessarily incorporate a “dominant” member mitigate against notion of a leader being unnecessary to team performance. It is the behavior and approach of this member to the task at hand and other team members which will eventually impact on team cohesiveness and performance regardless of the nature or construction of the team or the environment in which the team is formed. Leadership skills and abilities therefore are indispensible to team performance and should be regarded as an opportunity for team performance enhancement.