Leaders as Role Models

Benny Geys

Leaders can stimulate or undermine organizational performance through their influence on staff values and attitudes.

Human beings are social animals who define our identities through relationships with each other. Our need for belonging makes us keen to assimilate into the groups we are part of.

One way we may do this in a work environment is by incorporating the values and attitudes of our leaders into our own identities. Leaders thus act as role models: They lead, we follow.

In a new study, we test the extent to which this happens by looking at turnover in top leadership positions. Do such shifts in leadership cause shifts in the attitudes of staff members?

Based on data from 162 employees in the European Commission (EC) – who we observe before and after changes of their political and administrative leaders – the short answer is “yes”.

For example, when people get a new leader who comes from a more EU-critical country than their outgoing leader, they start to incorporate this less positive position about the EU and the EC’s role into their own attitudes.

This is particularly important because staff attitudes are a key driver of individual and organizational performance. Our findings thus suggest that leaders can stimulate or undermine organizational performance just through their influence on staff attitudes.

Leader selection

This has immediate implications for leader selection strategies. Organizations should pay close attention to the backgrounds and attitudes of leadership candidates, including how they relate to those of the organization and outgoing leaders.

When deciding on leadership transitions, it may be beneficial for organizations to emphasize the positive differences between incoming and outgoing leaders. For instance, whether the new leader embodies desirable organizational attitudes. We often see this happen when football managers are replaced by someone who is believed to embody a more desirable type of play.

Similarly, downplaying a new leaders’ opinions when these are at odds with key organizational values will be useful to mitigate their influence on staff attitudes. Being from a more EU-critical country, for instance, can be offset by stressing a new leader’s previous career successes or strong experience in a particularly relevant policy domain.

Source: Geys, B., Connolly, S., Kassim, H. and Murdoch, Z. (2020), Follow the Leader? Leader Succession and Staff Attitudes in Public Sector Organizations. Public Administration Review, 80: 555-564. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.13189

Published 12. May 2021

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