Leadership success is built not only on the competencies of the leader but also the perceptions of followers. Conceptualizing perceptions as attitudes unveils a more nuanced and complete explanation of leadership success (and failure).
What makes a good leader? The answer is often given in the context of the leader’s impact on followers — a natural response since the effectiveness of a leader is defined not by what he or she does, but by what he or she is capable of getting others to do. For this reason, theories on leadership tend to be based on a process involving followers’ perceptions, because those perceptions will decide how followers react to the leader. If trustworthiness, for example, is considered a leadership attribute, the measure of that attribute is whether followers trust the leader (or, in other words, how followers perceive the trustworthiness of the leader).
Arguing that the development of perceptions is synonymous with the way attitudes are developed — that is, based on followers’ subjective evaluations of the leader — a team of UK academics conceptualize leadership perceptions as attitudes to reveal a variety of insights into the leadership process, including how leadership works and why, sometimes, it doesn’t.
The researchers begin with the concept of attitude content, which in psychological terms refers to the affect, cognitive and behaviour components of attitudes. Thus, in in leadership terms, the content of a follower’s attitude towards a leader is reflected in how a follower feels about a leader, what that follower thinks about the leader, and how that follower is moved to behave in response to the leader?
The researchers also apply the concept of attitude structure to leadership. Structure involves attitude elements such as intensity, certainty and importance (how much a person cares about the attitude).
Finally, the researchers review the concept of attitude function — the reason for the attitudes. In other words, what is the purpose of the attitude? Past research has identified three important functions: utilitarian (the attitude leads to rewards or punishment), social identity (the attitude helps people identify with other people they like) and self-esteem maintenance (the attitude helps people maintain their self-esteem).
Relating the leadership process to attitudes unveils a menu of variables to use in understanding leadership effectiveness (and ineffectiveness) and, subsequently, designing leadership development.
For example, engagement and organizational commitment is often cited as key to an individual’s performance at work. While performance might be classified, in the terminology of attitudes, as cognitive or behavioural, organizational commitment is clearly an affective element (expressed as “I feel a strong sense of belonging to my organization”). Recognizing that commitment is a “feeling,” the best leaders will approach any effort to increase employees’ commitment to the organization from this perspective. Thus, an affective approach — emphasizing the company’s mission, for example — will be more successful in developing commitment than a cognitive approach, such as emphasizing the company’s profits.
Attitude structure and function add similar nuances to understanding leadership effectiveness. In terms of structure, for example, the importance of organizational commitment seems to greater with younger generations; thus today’s effective leaders are those that recognize this heightened importance and can generate passion in their followers for the organization’s purpose and mission.
The function of an attitude must not be ignored as well. For example, the attitude of employees’ toward a leader might be coloured by the attitudes of their peers if the employees are driven by social-identity goals; on the other hand, poorly performing employees seeking to maintain their self-esteem might consider a leader to be incompetent because it gives them an excuse for their poor performance.
In sum, leadership development is as much about follower attitude change as it is about leader behavioural change. Yes, improving the leader’s skills and competencies is obviously a core component leadership training. However, leadership trainers cannot ignore how and why people adopt certain attitudes toward their leaders if they want to change the outcomes of a leader’s performance — and positive outcomes, after all, are the end goals for all leadership development.
Conceptualizing leadership perceptions as attitudes: Using attitude theory to further understand the leadership process. Allan Lee, Robin Martin, Geoff Thomas, Yves Guillaume & Gregory R. Maio. The Leadership Quarterly (December 2017).
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