Recent developments in how professionals think about leadership have focused on two important ideas: transformational leadership, and the concept of attribution.
Most ordinary leaders use what is called transactional leadership, which applies rewards or punishments to influence subordinates. According to current views, however, truly great leaders are those that go beyond transactional approaches and adopt transformational leadership. The transformational leader:
- convincingly articulates a compelling vision of the future;
- breaks with tradition and finds new ways of doing things;
- sets out a clear plan for how to reach future goals;
- infuses goals with a purpose that is understood by subordinates;
- is willing to take more risks than the average leader;
- wants to lead and seeks out leadership opportunities;
- uses expertise, respect and admiration of subordinates to build a power
- base; and
- always behaves ethically, consistently and fairly, leading by example.
Traditionally, these types of leadership qualities have been associated with the great charismatic leaders of history. The same charisma, however, applies to the leadership of large multinational organizations. Inspired by such individuals, subordinates respond with devotion, commitment, excitement and superior performance.
Interestingly, the GLOBE project discovered that transformational leadership is considered superior to transactional leadership in almost all cultures. What differed were the leadership traits associated by different cultures with this type of leadership.
It is not hard to see why. Because a transformational leader has to tap into basic cultural values, narratives and symbols to “sell” a vision of the future, the way in which the leader does this will ultimately be determined by the culture within which he or she operates.
Qualities such as being encouraging, trustworthy, positive, motivational or able to instill confidence seem to be universally admired, irrespective of culture.
How they are applied, however, is very much determined by the specific of local circumstances.
Attribute events to the right causes, instead of jumping to false conclusions
Another area of leadership research attracting a lot of attention is the notion of attribution. The word describes the process of making inferences about the causes of observed behaviour.
If someone arrives late for work, this can be attributed to laziness, carelessness, heavy traffic, illness, a family emergency or any number of other causal factors. Both managers and their subordinates apply attribution constantly in observing each other’s behaviour, and they respond to each other based on that attribution.
Problems arise, however, if there is misattribution. This can easily occur if an internal attribution is assigned instead of an external one. To take the example of the late worker, an internal attribution (laziness, carelessness) may be assigned by the manager when, in fact, the lateness was due to an external factor (heavy traffic).
This has significant consequence in the workplace, since misattribution can lead to the wrong remedial measures.
If a manager makes an internal attribution in response to a problem, remediation may involve coaching, or punishing or rewarding the employee.
If the manager makes an external attribution, remediation may involve changing the work environment, schedule, or tasks assigned. Misattribution runs the risk of irrelevant remediation.
What is worse, however, misattribution can also lead to severe misunderstandings between managers and their subordinates. This can become all the more acute in a cross-cultural setting.
For example, a North American manager arriving in a foreign subsidiary for the first time may take a tour of a plant that has been experiencing problems. The manager may want to see the production facilities and processes, while subordinates may want to meet their new boss as an exercise in mutual respect. The manager may be irritated that subordinates are constantly asking how to deal with problems rather than solving it themselves, but the subordinates may be expecting the manager to make the decisions.
The manager may see a problem on the shop floor and intervene to correct it but subordinates may see it as public criticism and humiliation. The manager may organize a “working session” to deal with problems, but if he rolls up his shirt sleeves and puts his feet on the desk, he may succeed in horrifying subordinates by what they consider crude behaviour.
These are all examples of misattributions that can serve as devastating impediments to effective communication. A good international manager and leader will recognize these pitfalls and use an understanding of local norms to avoid such attribution errors.