Leadership behavior-in-context: an antidote to leadership hype

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Purpose-This paper aims to outline three ways in which a leader's behavior-in-context can be examined. As such it moves away from an emphasis on a leader's ''performance and personality'' and focuses on underlying contextual
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  Leadership behavior-in-context:an antidote to leadership hype Michael Walton  Abstract Purpose  – This paper aims to outline three ways in which a leader’s behavior-in-context can be examined. As such it moves away from an emphasis on a leader’s ‘‘performance and personality’’ and focuses on underlying contextual features which can lead to success or failure. Design/method/approach  – The paper examines some of the possible bases for dysfunctional leadership and concludes that such counter-productive behavior may be contextually determined.Three ways of looking at executive behavior-in-context are used to highlight the need to look beyond a leader’s style in order to assess their organizational achievements. Findings  – Any assessment of a leader’s performance should be based on their behavior-in-context. Practicalimplications  – Thepaperofferswaysinwhichexecutiveappointments,successiondecisions and performance appraisal can be enhanced by taking a closer and more nuanced assessment of the behavior of leaders. Originality/value  – The paper brings together three ways of re-viewing leadership misbehavior and offersanalternativetoanoverfocusonthepersonalityoftheleaderasthecorebasisforsuccessorfailure. Keywords  Toxic leadership, Executive dysfunction, Leadership failure, Leader behavior-in-context,Leaders, Leadership development, Leadership  Paper type  Viewpoint  1. Introduction We expect a great deal from our leaders; we celebrate their successes and penalize theirfailures and transgressions and whilst it is a leader’s style and behavior which often catchesthe eye this article suggests that a number of additional factors will influence how a leaderbehaves over and above their psychological character and behavioral predispositions.Even though the romance of the leader-as-hero movement has been muted to some extentthrough approaches such as distributed leadership (Gronn, 2000), servant leadership,(Greenleaf,1977),Collins’(2001)Level5leadershipeachofwhichchampionamorecollegialegalitarian approach – the hype about leadership continues. A scan of the titles available inbookshopsonleadershipindicatesthatthelureoftheheroicandgrandioseisfarfromdead.Much is made in the media, and in the academic press, of the desirability of charismatic,transformational, heroic, and inspirational executive leadership in delivering stakeholdervalue and as part of building robust business organizations. Executive coaches highlighthow a person ‘‘can be their best’’ or even ‘‘the’’ best-in-class; leadership programs enticeparticipants to become ‘‘local heroes’’. The hype about executive excellence and personalaggrandizement generates unrealistic expectations and brings unintended consequencessuch as avoidable personal and organizational trauma, criminality, disappointment, failure,exploitation and greed. In contrast rather less emphasis has been directed at the dangersassociated with too strong an emphasis on such ego-centric leadership behavior. Whilst forinstance confidence and self-belief is important in a leader too strong a belief in oneself can DOI 10.1108/00197851111171836 VOL. 43 NO. 7 2011, pp. 415-421, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0019-7858 j  INDUSTRIAL AND COMMERCIAL TRAINING j  PAGE 415 Michael Walton is based atPeople in OrganisationsLtd, Pointon, UK.  blind a leader to their own limitations and result in personal failure and organizationaldisaster should they overreach their capabilities and block themselves off from feedback(Hogan, 2007; Kets de Vries, 2009).The ‘‘war for talent’’ – has probably reinforced an over emphasis on leadership as ‘‘good’’and diverted attention away from some of the unintended consequences of too unwaveringand unconditional a belief in the inherent ‘‘goodness’’ of those entrusted with suchresponsibilities. Regretfully the combination of an unswerving belief in ‘‘leaders’’  per se  together with an over emphasis on charismatic, transformational or heroic leadership stylescan create a toxic mix as the catalogue of high profile corporate transgressions since 2001,attributed to executive dysfunctionality of one sort or another, has demonstrated (Gray  et al. ,2005; Hamilton and Micklethwait, 2006; Mitchell, 2001).Given this background it should be of no surprise therefore that when things go wrong weblame the leader. It is convenient – and tempting and lazy – to conclude that dysfunctionalorganizational workings are a result of personality clashes, ego-centric behavior, excessivenarcissism, dictatorial and intimidating behavior etc. from those ‘‘at the top’’. The realsurprise though is that leadership and organizational failures may occur just as much fromorganizational and contextual factors as they do from factors primarily associated with thebehavioral dynamics of those in charge.Wider recognition of this combination of causal factors has significant implications for thoseresponsible for the appointment, development, assessment and succession of leaders.Implications too for how consultants charged with organization development – and foracademics interested in the leader: organization interface as well as the politics of power –may wish to diagnose and address organizational issues. 2. So, what’s the problem and what can we do about it? Pretty much since the 1980s we have been conditioned to believe in the leadership hype somuch so that when expectations about business performance, earnings growth, ethicalpractices, ‘‘honest’’ dealings, fair trade, sound corporate governance etc. fail to be met thereaction tendency is to blame the leader. My contention is that, generally, less attention thanis merited is given to contextual factors which may have significantly contributed to failuresof leadership or the collapse of the business. My experience suggests that a leader’s failure,and counter-productive behavior, may be just as much a reflection of internal organizationalproblems as it is a reflection of their personality and psychological make-up.If so then one problem is how to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the leader(s) whenthings start to go wrong and attempt to tease out what might be other determinants of aleader’s behavior-in-context. Progress in isolating such influences can be used to assistthose responsible for making decisions about executive selection, promotion, performancereview etc. and in managing the health and well-being of the organization at large.Help is at hand though and three frameworks are outlined below which can: B  help to identify the impact of business pressures on a leader’s behavior; B  facilitate a more detailed examination of the business: leader dynamics that are beinggenerated; and B  promote a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to the development, appraisal,selection and succession of leaders-in-situ. ‘‘The ‘war for talent’ – has probably reinforced an over emphasis on leadership as ‘good’’’ PAGE 416 j INDUSTRIAL AND COMMERCIAL TRAINING j  VOL. 43 NO. 7 2011  In essence the models which follow help to separate out the person (i.e. the leader(s)) fromthe issue (i.e. dysfunctional and counter-productive leadership behavior) and can be usedto develop remedial or preventative intervention strategies. 2.1 Framework 1 – the toxic triangle  Based on their research into destructive leadership Padilla  et al.  (2007) use their notion of the‘‘toxic triangle’’ to describe three key components which, in combination, are likely to result indestructive leadership behavior. They suggest that if you have destructive leaders togetherwith compliant or colluding followers, and environmental conditions (both internally within theorganization and externally) then dysfunctional and destructive behavior may take hold.They view destructive leadership as involving control and coercion rather than persuasionand commitment and distinguish in their model between those followers who allowdestructiveleadershiptotakeplaceandthosewhoactivelysupportsuchbehavior.Thethirddomain in their toxic triangle is the environmental context and here they identify fourcontextual factors of importance:1. the degree of internal stability/instability within the organization;2. followers’ perceptions of feeling under external threat;3. the influence of the organization’s embedded cultural values on thinking and behavior;and4. the absence of checks and balances to guard against the misuse of power and, thestrength of the internal governance mechanisms in place.So – in their model (Figure 1) – a combination of toxic leaders, leading vulnerable andsusceptible followers, and working within an organization which is internally a bit unstableand which feels under external threat is very likely to be a recipe for a leadership disaster! 2.2 Framework 2 – the ‘‘ACE’’ framework  The second model is the ‘‘ACE’’ framework which suggests that any assessment of aleader’s performance should take into account the effect on their behavior of the operational Figure 1  A toxic triangle – destructive leadership VOL. 43 NO. 7 2011 j INDUSTRIAL AND COMMERCIAL TRAINING j  PAGE 417  contexts within which they are working. This would include the external environmentalconditions impacting that business as well as the internal ‘‘state’’ of their organization.The ‘‘ACE’’ model (Walton, 2007, 2008) emerged from a review of a series of consultingcases involving chief executives and directors from across a range of organizations andsectors (Figure 2). The first dimension focuses on the psychological and behavioralcharacteristics of the executive(s) involved (i.e. the actor(s)), next comes an examination ofthe internal ‘‘state’’ of the organization and its culture(s) (i.e. the internal context), and, finallythe need to undertake an assessment of the external circumstances and conditionsimpacting on that organization (i.e. the external circumstances).The threedimensionscanbeused – ratherlikethe toxictriangleabove – toexaminecurrentand past leadership behavior and past organizational situations or future anticipatedscenarios and to guard against the potential for executive failure and organizational traumain the future. The degree of detail to which each of these dimensions is examined, and therelative importance weighting given will vary case by case. But the key is to examine thesefactors to build up an assessment of leadership risk.So the fundamental idea here then is that the behavior of the leader(s) needs to be viewed‘‘in context’’ and that failing to do so seriously limits the validity of any assessment of aleader’s capability and performance and can thus fail to identify latent organizationaldifficulties which could come to unseat the leader and damage the organization.Each of the three dimensions – the key actors/executives, the internal ‘‘state’’ of theorganization, and external forces (such as financial institutions, media attention, investorinterest) needs to be considered both separately and in combination to build up a morecomplete picture of any organizational situation to be addressed. The results of such anassessment can indicate the extent to which there appears to be sufficient commonality and‘‘fit’’ between these three domains that makes success likely, or highlight any profounddissonance – or mismatch between them – which could presage potential failure.The third model which follows is taken from the world of criminology rather than frompsychology or business and offers an interesting slant on the latent potential fordysfunctional behavior by business leaders given the privileged position they occupy in theworkplace and the opportunity they have to misuse their power and influence. 2.3 Framework 3 – the fraud triangle  The fraud triangle has its srcins in a study of embezzlers conducted by Donald Cressey(1953) and offers another way of examining the behavior of leaders in context (Figure 3).Whilst the potential for dysfunctional behavior may remain latent within each of us this paperdoes not suggest that such latent destructive potentialities will inevitably emerge and takehold but Cressey (1953) offers clues about which might prompt such behavior. Figure 2  The ‘‘ACE’’ model – leadership-in-context PAGE 418 j INDUSTRIAL AND COMMERCIAL TRAINING j  VOL. 43 NO. 7 2011  We know that those in positions of seniority and trust have the opportunity – should theyelect to take it – to manipulate situations to theirown advantage as evidenced by the rash ofhighprofile cases ofcorporateabuse and thefraudulent useof power sincetheyear 2000.Itis salutary to speculate that such newsworthy cases are probably merely the public tip of aniceberg of such cases world-wide.Thefraudtrianglehighlightsthatitistheopportunitytoexploitthatmakessuchunhelpfulanddestructivebehaviorviablefortheperpetrator(i.e.inourcasealeader)tocontemplateinthefirst place. He suggests that fraud – or in our case counter-productive or destructiveexecutive behavior – is more likely to arise when the fraudster: B  comes under too much pressure or where the incentive to defraud becomes tooappealing to deny; B  when the opportunity to commit fraud exists, or can be easily created; and B  when the fraudster can rationalize to him or her self that their otherwise disreputablebehavior can be justified as ‘‘OK’’ given the circumstances (as they choose to definethem).Workinginorganizationscanbestressfulandespeciallyforleaderswhoareinvariablyunderthe spotlight and often under pressure to perform, exercise faultless judgment, consistentlydeliver short-term financial returns etc. In addition to such work pressure, personalityclashes, internal rivalries, work flow frustrations, the destructive rumor-mill, turf wars, statusenvy are but a few examples of everyday business pressures which may prompt anexecutive to begin to behave dysfunctionally, destructively and fraudulently. Should theyhave the desire to do so it is those in positions of trust and responsibility who will be able tocreate the opportunities to realize such wishes. 3. Implications for action Several implications for practice emerge from combining these frameworks each of whichcan be used to disentangle and separate out influential organizational factors which canconstrain or reinforce a leader’s overt behavior. Figure 3  The fraud triangle – releasing latent misbehavior VOL. 43 NO. 7 2011 j INDUSTRIAL AND COMMERCIAL TRAINING j  PAGE 419
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