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Designing a Leadership Development Exercise

Groysberg and colleagues pose, in their Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, that “the more closely the new environment matches the old, the greater the likelihood of success” for the leader (Groysberg, McLean & Nohria, 2006: 100). The crux of their argument is that leaders are very rarely successful when transferred due to the highly contextual nature of leadership (Groysberg et al., 2006). This shows a vital disconnect between leadership development theory and practice because, in many cases, leadership development is viewed as a one size fits all (Barker, 1997; Groysberg, 2004). Leadership development and its benefits are a hotly debated topic (Barker, 1997; Allio, 2005; Groysberg et al., 2006). A lack of concrete definition for either term has led to ambiguity which is open to interpretation and manipulation to suit its nuanced purposes (Barker, 1997). Although there is a wide array of literature on the subject, there seems to be a deep divide between academic and industry viewpoints on the value of leadership development (Barker, 1997; Allio, 2005; Groysberg et al., 2006). While both agree on aspects such as leadership emergence in groups; the long-run value of leadership development is contested (Kalish & Luria, 2016; Barker, 1997). The erratic disjunction between theory and practice is testament to the complexity of not only leadership development but also leadership in its broader sense. As well as addressing these broad complexities, this essay will provide a nuanced evaluation of approaches to leadership development. The elucidation of each of the above elements will bolster the arguments that followership is the fundamental underpinning of leadership (Crossman & Crossman, 2017) and this, therefore, should be considered in leadership development programmes.

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Designing a leadership development exercise was particularly challenging, having grasped and cemented the belief that leadership cannot be taught and behaviour cannot be fundamentally changed without identity work (Carroll & Levy, 2010; DeRue & Ashford, 2010). As identity work could not occur over the thirty-minute timeframe which the exercise permitted (Carroll & Levy, 2010), it was agreed that the exercise should allow participants to learn about the theories underpinning leadership development, rather than how to lead. Groysberg, et al’s (2006) HBR article outlined that in reality, leaders are rarely portable. Although this research provides only a snapshot of specifically chosen cases where a transported leader failed; one can apply the notion of contextual leadership and assess why all leaders were successful in one situation and not another. Though this does not necessarily hold true for all, those in the business of developing leaders must at least be open minded towards, if not prepared for, retraining when a change of circumstance arises. The value placed on leadership development by most organisations means that it is crucial that the contextual nature of leadership success is understood in order to effectively select, train and develop leaders (Schyns, Kiefer, Kerschreiter & Tymon, 2011). Therefore, it was clear that any exercise should be targeted at instilling this understanding in middle-managerial levels and above. By grasping the situational nature of successful leadership, managers can fully prepare for the retraining which might be required should circumstances change (Schyns et al., 2011). Experiential learning was deemed most appropriate by the team as the method for the invoking understanding from the participating group (Kolb, 1984) The kinetic nature of this type of learning is thought to be more successful over a shorer time period than purely cognitive learning styles, such as lectures, due to the immediacy of the learning process (Kayes, 2002). Therefore, this exercise accounted for the short timescale available: a short timescale prevents those running leadership development programmes from understanding how leadership naturally shifts over time (Schyns et al., 2011; Kalish & Luria, 2016). As such, it was vital to inform the participants in the demonstration of the full expectation states theory, which outlines the emergence of leadership and its ability to shift over the lifetime of a group (Kalish & Luria, 2016).

Without a universal initial idea in the team of how to proceed with the construction of the exercise, one team member needed to claim leadership and provide direction. Due to our lack of prior-knowledge of each other’s strengths, we could not initially grant a leadership position. In this case, it was the team member (‘A’) who could exert a level of expert authority. Member ‘A’ had previously researched and produced a paper on the topic of leadership and as such had a greater background understanding of the topic than the other team members. From a leader-centric perspective, this is in accordance with Milgram’s (1963) findings that followers seek to obey those with a perceived expert knowledge. This led the team to accept member ‘A’ as the initial leader. This acceptance highlights that, in this case, it was expertise which was a requirement of the followers when accepting the claimed leader. This is in line with followership theory notion which exerts that followers are the co-constructors of leadership (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). This shows that it is not only the traits of the leader which are the determinants of leadership potential, but so too are the perceptions of the followers (Crossman & Crossman, 2017). Therefore, when managers are selecting potential leaders to develop, their perception from potential followers should also be considered. This highlights the importance of situational awareness from managers. If there is a change in followers, the leader may prove less successful and should be re-evaluated and retrained if required at that stage (Groysberg et al., 2006). The importance of perception in this process also gives pertinence to the application of transformational leadership theory in leadership development – highlighting the need to evoke an emotional response from followers to the success of the leader (Burns, 1978; Groysberg et al., 2006). Therefore, when selecting a leader to develop, the emotional appeal and the ability for the leader to forge good relationships with followers is crucial (Turner, 2005; Groysberg et al., 2006).

However, it should be noted that over the month the team were together, the leadership position informally shifted several times, depending on the stage of creation of the exercise. Notably, when it was the stage of putting the game and the presentation together, the leader shifted again to the team member (‘B’) who had the most creative background. This occurrence is in compliance with Kalish & Luria’s (2016) adaptation of expectation states theory which poses that in short-lived groups, new leaders emerge as the requirements of the situation change. It should be noted that at each change of leadership, the new leader claimed their leadership, followed by the granting from the group upon proof of the claims of relevant expertise. Therefore, though one may argue that although anyone may claim leadership, it must also be granted by the group in order for that leader to be successful (Crossman & Crossman, 2017). Thus, although at any given point, the team was led by an individual under expert authority (Milgram, 1963), holistically over the month-long period of the teamwork, it can be deemed that a version of a shared leadership model was employed by the team due to the team’s common purpose (Rost, 1993). Though this model, in line with Zhang & Bartol’s (2010) findings, empowered the group members, the groupthink (Janis, 1982) component of shared leadership proved inefficient at points, requiring one member to re-engage the team in the task. This would emphasise Shamir’s argument that leadership cannot be fully shared, because in a scenario where leadership is fully shared, there would be no definite leader (Shamir, 2012).

Turner (2005) notes that the first step of leadership development should be to select an individual with the traits required to handle the immediate situation. This was previously seen within the team and as such was the expected outcome of the scenarios put together as the exercise. Therefore, tertiary to the transferability of leaders, it was deemed appropriate to demonstrate Turner’s (2005) first step to enforce that those possessing specific leadership traits should be selected in order to be developed into leaders. However, some argue that behaviour arising from these traits can be artificially planted into the desired leader via programmes designed to habituate leadership behaviours (Schyns et al., 2011). The granting of leadership, rather than a natural emergence, may lead to the chosen leader to behave in a way they believe to be correct of a leader, rather than acting authentically as themselves (DeRue & Ashford, 2010; McCambridge, Witton & Elbourne, 2014). Though over the set-timescale for this exercise, it is arguably futileto attempt to negate this effect, it was considered by the team and shall be discussed later in this essay.

The leadership development exercise prepared for the demonstration group comprised of three scenarios, each requiring a different specific skill or trait. However, it should be noted that the cognitive and creative exercises may be argued to require similar traits as they are both deemed to be problem solving exercises (Mumford et al., 2000). With the expectation that these scenarios would result in three different leaders being selected –  under the expectation states theory adaptation (Kalish & Luria, 2016) –  the three scenarios were deemed appropriate for the outlined learning purpose. The demonstration group was comprised of colleagues within the same class. By showing, in real time, that different situations required different leaders, it was hoped that the participants would grasp the contextual nature of leadership and the lack of transferability of leaders. It was found in the delivery of the assignment that three leaders possessing different qualities were indeed selected for each of the three different tasks. The group was instructed to self-select its leader after reading the brief for each task. It was not explicitly forbidden for the group to re-select the same leader for each task. A time limit of five minutes was given for each task, giving a sense of urgency and constricting leadership to being granted or claimed, rather than emerge (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). No notable discussion preceded the group’s self-selection of the leader for each task, suggesting that leadership was immediately determined from a shallow evaluation of group members and their traits. In accordance with Kalish & Luria’s (2016) adaptation of expectation states theory, the group member who was deemed to have the highest cognitive ability was selected as the leader for the problem solving task; the member with the perceived highest physical capabilities was the selected leader for the physical task; and the perceived most creative member was selected as the leader for the creative task. These results mimic the observation from the team designing the exercise. This hints again at the requirement of a specific skill in order to be assigned authority, and therefore leadership (Kalish & Luria, 2016). However, it must be noted that expectation states theory (Kalish & Luria, 2016) relates to leadership emergence whereas in this case, leadership was granted by the group, based on pre-existing knowledge of each person’s traits within the demonstration group.

Across these three scenarios, leadership was granted in two cases and claimed in one. The group member (‘1’) who claimed leadership was also the member granting leadership to other group members. Apparent recognition of their own qualities as well as those of their colleagues put group member in a self-proclaimed position to bestow authority upon themselves and other group members. Despite assigning two of the leaders, group member took charge of the situation, regularly through the exercise. The lack of opposition to these moves by member from the rest of the group elucidates followership theory (Crossman & Crossman, 2017). Member 1’s followers co-constructed his title as leader by actively allowing him to lead and choosing to follow (Crossman & Crossman, 2017). Just as leadership claiming requires agreement from the followers, under the principles of followership theory (DeRue & Ashford, 2010) leadership granting requires too agreement and claiming from a willing leader (Groysberg et al., 2006). This presents an interesting question as to whether member 1 remained as the informal group leader consistently across the exercises or whether member 1 played the role of first follower (Northouse, 2007) in two of the cases and leader in the third.

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By definition the first follower serves as a role model, demonstrating behaviours to the subsequent followers and thereby reducing their exposure to risk (Northouse, 2007). Though member 1 did indeed demonstrate the problem solving behaviours required for the tasks, one might argue that instead of being the first follower, member is a closer fit to the description of a leader by being the first to demonstrate behaviours required for the situation (Yukl, 2013). No one minimised the risk for member 1, and instead member 1 acted as a role model in demonstrating appointing a leader or suggesting solutions to each of the given scenarios. Therefore, one may argue that member remained the leader throughout all three tasks. Within this occurrence, there is an apparent disconnect between theory and reality. Academic literature appears to rely heavily on the belief that leadership is assigned or claimed (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). However, as was found in the case outlined above, even in situations where leadership is assigned, some may claim an informal or unofficial leadership role due to being more outspoken that the assigned leader. The behaviours, and identity to some extent, of an individual may overpower the pre-existing understanding of the physical, cognitive or creative traits required to fulfil the leadership role and the qualification of the assigned leader. This may be attributed to the delay in movement by the assigned leader, allowing the informal leader to claim the position of leader by reacting first and demonstrating behaviour. It can be argued that it was the exact context, in terms of the time-pressured task and the conducive followers, which allowed this informal claiming to take place.

When considering the observations made in this exercise, one must consider the Hawthorne Effect (McCambridge et al., 2014). There is potential for the observed nature of this exercise to have produced inauthentic behaviour as the participants understood the underlying purposes of the tasks and what was expected of them, whereas participants from external organisations would not have the same understanding (McCambridge et al., 2014). Furthermore, one may argue the artificial nature of the exercise allows for little understanding regarding leadership emergence as leadership assignation was demanded from the group rather than allowed to evolve naturally. Therefore, the findings from this exercise should not be extrapolated as the expected findings from a non-student group. Further, the Hawthorne Effect should be considered in leadership development as behaviour observed in development workshops may not be testament to substantive learning taking place. Thus, the observations may not be used as conclusive evidence to confirm or deny the underlying theories but instead guide understanding.

It might be argued that is was somewhat unexpected that the leaders in the team and the group emerged in line with expectation states theory due to the general disconnect which is found between academic literature and industry practice. The affirmation of the theory, as well as the traits of followership theory found in the group demonstration, may reinforce the importance of theory in the underpinnings of leadership development. However, it can be seen here that the conditions of this exercise were exactly conducive to the observed outcomes and as such, it must be noted that other circumstances are likely to have induced different outcomes. The differences in the processes of leadership emergence between the group and the team are also testament to the situational nature of leadership. Therefore, it can be understood that leadership development must be carried out in a job-specific context, with the understanding that a change in conditions will lead to a need for re-training or further development. This is because, as seen in the case provided and in Groysberg and colleagues’ (2006) HBR article, leaders are rarely transferable between contexts as different situations demand different skills and behaviours. By understanding this, managers can fully develop effective leaders for their required purpose.


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