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There are too many leadership concepts… but which ones are redundant?
The sheer number of leadership concepts is creating confusion and just trying to keep up with new notions of leadership is a full time job. As a result there is a lot of confusion and overlap between leadership concepts, the variety of different styles, traits, behaviours and other ideas that proliferate in the leadership literature.
- Explosion of leadership concepts
- Redundant leadership concepts
- A new study
- Overlapping constructs
- Primary leadership constructs
- Laissez-faire leadership
- Leadership outcomes
Explosion of leadership concepts
Over the years there has been an explosion in academic research and other writing around leadership to the extent that there is a continual creation of new constructs and notions about leadership that have resulted in considerable confusion and overlap.
As an example of this explosion in research, in 1960 there were 2995 research papers published about leadership. In 2017 (the last complete year) there were 114,422 peer-reviewed papers published about leadership. In 2017 there were 31,339 papers published about leadership styles, up from 499 in 1960.
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Redundant leadership concepts
It is not surprising that the sheer number of constructs, frameworks and ideas about leadership have become complex, overlapping and, to some extent, many are likely to be covering the same ground and are, therefore, redundant.
A new study
A new (2018) study by a team of researchers has conducted an extensive review of research literature to discover the extent of construct redundancy in the literature around leadership behaviours. As can be imagined, both the study and the findings are somewhat complex in nature, but are useful for helping to navigate the plethora of leadership constructs. An example of a potentially redundant construct is the concept of authentic leadership.
A meta-analysis in 2016 found that the concept of authentic leadership overlaps and replicates a significant proportion of the attributes of transformational leadership. The study also found that authentic leadership provided superior outcomes to those measured in practice by leaders following a transformational leadership framework.
Before reviewing the findings of this study, it should be noted that measurements and descriptions of leadership and its outcomes vary considerably between research studies, making it difficult to have a like by like comparison. However, the study found that, over time, many of the leadership constructs tend to coalesce into an agreed understanding with core shared attributes, as well as a number of properties that are idiosyncratic to the various studies.
Primary leadership concepts
The core leadership styles and constructs that the study examined were:
- New charisma
Of these eight primary leadership constructs the study found that only:
leadership concepts displayed any meaningful and measurable correlations with the outcomes ascribed to them. The other four primary leadership constructs that are found in the literature provided no valid research evidence for either a distinction as a stand-alone category of leadership nor evidence that they contribute to the outcomes attributed to them.
The only exception to this is laissez-faire leadership, which is actually considered to be a “non-leadership” construct, in that laissez-faire leaders abdicate their responsibilities, fail to be present when needed and resist making decisions or expressing views on important matters. So, whilst laissez-faire leadership is well-defined and separate from any other leadership construct, it is in actual fact not a ‘leadership’ style rather a method of abdicating responsibility.
The main correlations between leader behaviours and their outcomes can be found in the following:
- Job performance: transformational, ethical and servant leadership styles were found to have very similar outcomes in terms of job performance which were measured in the range of a small to medium impact on job performance. Authentic leadership was found to have no appreciable impact on job performance overall. Laissez-faire leadership methods were found largely to have a negative impact on job performance.
- Unit or team performance: servant leadership was found to have a medium to large positive impact on unit or team performance, with transformational, authentic and ethical leadership behaviours displaying a moderate level of outcomes in this area compared to transactional leaders.
- Organisational citizenship behaviours: authentic leadership has the biggest positive impact on organisational citizenship behaviours with transformational, servant and ethical leadership types failing to have any distinguishable impact on such behaviours within the organisation.
- Turnover intentions: ethical and servant leadership styles have the largest positive impact on reducing turnover intentions and increasing retention rates. There is little or no consistent evidence for the impact of transformational or authentic leadership having any impact on turnover intentions.
Apart from these four organisational outcomes, there is no consistent evidence for other leadership constructs having a consistent and reliable effect or impact.
Additionally, the study finds that three of the primary leadership constructs; transformational, authentic and ethical overlap enough that they can actually be brought into a broader category called moral leadership.
In line with the most recent systematic reviews, servant leadership is the most well-defined leadership construct and has the most consistent outcomes as well.
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