A recent study offers some penetrating insights into the self-vision of those entrusted with directing Australian businesses. By David James
How do Australian leaders and managers see themselves? The question is not as simple as it sounds. Few penetrating studies are available of Australian leadership, mainly because of the high costs involved and the difficulty in developing a sufficiently large research base. So, the recent study Leadership, Organisational Culture and Job Outcomes in Australian Enterprises, an examination of members of the Australian Institute of Management by James Sarros, associate professor of management at Monash University, is a penetrating insight into this echelon of Australian society.
Employees analyse leaders far more in terms of their moral qualities.
Effectiveness is not necessarily the highest priority.
Leadership studies are of enduring interest even if their conclusions are doubtful. The reason is that success in management or business is primarily a function of volition, will power.
Deriving useful conclusions from a study of leaders self-perception requires some careful filtering. Typically, the best method is to compare the Australian findings with comparable studies in other countries. Sarros says when these comparisons are made, Australian executives show more “concern” than their counterparts in North America, and there is less reliance on a charismatic style.
“What I am gratified to learn is the level of passion that executives have in their organisations as shown by their transformational leadership behaviors (as opposed to “transactional” behaviors). Most corporations are transactional. That is why you get things done. Employees do their work and they get paid. People accept that; it is not a coercive form of leadership.
“But, transformational behaviors are important for getting performance beyond what you are paid for. The characteristics that come through there are individualised consideration, intelligent stimulation, inspiration and motivation, where you show care and compassion for your workers. But don’t forget, this is the way executives see themselves. To really validate the findings, what you have to do is survey the people who work for them. Self-perception is generally inflated.”
Descriptions without prescriptions
Leadership is perhaps the most vexed area of management research, and the area most beset with irresolvable logical problems. It is not too difficult to describe leadership, but it is exceptionally hard to find the underlying causes of different leadership phenomena. Sarros says the study overwhelmingly shows that leadership is more likely to define an enterprise’s culture than the culture is to define the leadership style. But does this mean that leaders are the “cause” behind an organisation’s culture? It is impossible to say, because there are too many factors to be considered, and there is no way of knowing how such causes and effects occur.
Chris Argyris writes in Flawed Advice and the Management Trap that there is little consensus amongst experts and scholars about the characteristics of leaders. “The leadership characteristics described by each guru may be true some of the time, none of the time, or most of the time. In other words, after decades of research, it is difficult to make true and actionable generalisations about leadership. One reason is that scholars focus on describing leadership. (Scholars) have given little or no attention to how to create the leadership characteristics they espouse.”
Peter Drucker, perhaps the most credible contemporary management thinker, contends that there are no generalisable leadership traits. In other words, after decades of leadership research, there is no certainty of any of its validity.
It is not even clear that “leadership” is something that should be studied in isolation, devoid of moral implications. This is perhaps the reason why there are often sharp divergences in perception between employees and leaders. Leaders tend to evaluate their own activities in terms of the narrative of control and effectiveness, even valor. Employees analyse leaders far more in terms of their moral qualities. Effectiveness is not necessarily the highest priority.
Drucker writes: “Leadership is not, by itself, good or desirable. Leadership is a means. Leadership to what end? is thus the crucial question. History knows no more charismatic leaders than this century’s triad of Stalin, Hitler and Mao; the misleaders who have inflicted as much evil and suffering on humanity as has ever been recorded.”
It is in the nature of research to isolate the subject under study. Drucker implies that this is fraught with peril. Everything depends on context. Leaders in start-up organisations need to be much more aggressive than leaders in stable companies operating in mature markets, for example. Leaders can also succeed with diametrically opposite methods: compare the participative style of The Body Shop with the more aggressive approach of most mining companies, for example.
The AIM study took a sample of 5000 members. There were 1918 useable responses, a 39% return rate (unusually high for studies of this kind). More than half the respondents held graduate degrees (associate diploma and Bachelor degrees), 27% had completed a Masters, and 7% a Doctorate. The majority (41%) were in administration; other professions were evenly and sparsely spread.
More than half the respondents were in organisations with a staff of less than 500. More than two-thirds were aged between 30 and 49; only 21% were aged between 50 and 59.
Sarros says it is hard to conduct such research in Australian corporations: “They are surveyed out.” He says the sample size is one of the largest in Australia. “We created new norms for leadership on the basis of our study. The norms that currently exist in Australia are based on 448 respondents. We have 1918. It is painstaking work. You have to talk to people in organisations, you have to survey employees, read annual reports. It is tortuous research; we just don’t have the resources or the time.”
Sarros says the most interesting findings were in the “cultural dimensions”. He says: “The smaller the organisation in terms of employee size, the more effective it was as a performer in all the dimensions of culture: the more competitive it was, the more performance oriented, the more socially responsible. The largest organisations were the least innovative.
“But, where we have improved on the basis of these findings is in terms of education and formal qualifications, and leadership. Leadership has certainly improved. But it is a self-select sample. People join AIM because they are more qualified and want to improve their networks.”
The character of leaders
Sarros says the character of a leader was three times more likely to be a predictor of an enterprise’s culture than the other way around (in some cases when culture was used as a predictor of the leadership style, it resulted in a negative correlation). He says the implication is that leadership should be taught.
Australian leaders do not expect to be trusted. Sarros says: “Their workers don’t trust them as leaders as much as their workers are committed to the organisation. Trust is at the lowest level of outcomes. Leaders need to pay much more attention to trust in organisations. That is one area we are not addressing well in Australian organisations.
“There is a communication gap. There is a gap of attachment to the vision. I don’t think leaders communicate well with workers. They have vision and mission statements, but how often do they try to do something with them?”
Consistent with the generalised nature of leadership research, most local studies simply transpose American methods on to Australian conditions, Sarros believes.
He says: “Leadership as identified in instruments like this can be generally cross-cultural. It transcends national boundaries. What Americans do, Australians do. The difference is, we do it with different emphases. So, even though idealised attributes that are among the transformational factors are part of Americans and Australians makeups, Americans see themselves as more charismatic than Australians. In comparison, we see ourselves as more caring than other cultures.
“In Australia, it doesn’t matter if you are the prime minister; the office doesn’t hold currency until you earn the respect of the Australian population. They accept the person rather than the office here; whereas, in the States, they are more likely to respond to the position. Australians are not comfortable with the charismatic emblems associated with offices. They want to be seen to do the job well.
“They (Australian leaders) also want to be seen to be fair, but the reality of the job is that you can’t be fair and do the job well, in many instances. Someone has got to lose along the way. That is why a leader has to make the hard decisions.”
Sarros says Australian leaders do not lack community recognition, but often it is not the sort of recognition that they want. “It is like banks, they don’t lack recognition, but maybe it is not a type of recognition they want. There is a tall poppy syndrome in Australia. It is part of our cultural cringe. We tend to think we are hard done by compared with the rest of the world in all indicators of achievement, whether it be sport or research or leadership. We tend to believe we are when in actual fact we really aren’t.
“I think we do our job just as well here, but maybe we don’t publicise it as well. The Yanks have an incredible ability to let everyone else know about how they are doing. We are more self deprecatory, we don’t blow our own trumpets. We tend to take ourselves probably a little bit too casually and people take advantage of that.”
Sarros says leadership is a global phenomenon but that there are many local differences. He says Australian leaders rarely achieve hero status. “This hero worship of leaders in America is something we don’t have in Australia unless they are sporting heroes. The emphasis is now very much on how much they earn on an annual basis.”
Sarros says media reporting on Australian leaders is not deep enough. “We never get to hear the public voice about the way they see our leaders. We constantly hear about public opinions about sporting heroes, but don’t get the same public indications about leaders.”
Yet, when he is asked for his personal opinions about leaders, Sarros is as reticent and cautious as the Australian public. A student of Australian leadership, he records an ambiguous response to leaders, perhaps reflecting a deep uncertainty in the Australian attitude. “I suppose you have got to respect them for where they have got. They must have a fair bit of tenacity and a lot of political nous and pretty compelling networks. But I don’t know whether I’d invite them to dinner. I suppose I have a respect for their ability to get to the position, but I don’t really want to emulate it. There are just too many other things attached to it: the fact that personal relationships are often jeopardised, family breakdowns.”
A fascination with leadership studies
Perhaps the most significant “finding” is the most obvious: the enormous popularity of leadership studies. Although beset with methodological problems, the often inconclusive examinations of leadership attract great interest. The AIM study says: “Our fascination with leadership in all walks of life is inexhaustible. Whether it be politicians caught in the spotlight of declining public opinion, business leaders retiring on excessive golden handshakes as their companies profits decline, or sports people impressing us with their unbelievable prowess, we never cease to be amazed, fascinated, and, yes, sometimes disappointed in these leadership examples.
“Leadership lies at the heart of what makes us tick. Leadership consists of attributes and skills that determine not only the nature of business, but the nature of society and the world. Our study is a comment on the state of the nation as well as the state of business generally.”
Herein lies the point. Leadership studies are of enduring interest, even if their conclusions are doubtful. The reason is that success in management or business is primarily a function of volition, will power. Stories or studies of leadership function as a stimulant for would-be leaders. This is what is deeply wrong-headed about studying leadership in the same way as studying a substance in a laboratory. The subject under the microscope, and the matter of greatest interest, is volition (one common element in leaders, is their strong wills). And volition cannot be put under the microscope, it is not a “thing” to be measured; it is a human characteristic to be understood.
The desire to lead
“People get there either because they are very good, or very political, they know the right people, they are ego driven, or incredibly energetic, or a combination,” says Sarros. “Or they want to be a leader. You can have all those attributes; but, if someone asks you do you want to be a leader, and you say no, then you won’t be a leader. So you have to have a desire to lead.
“But given all that, executives tend to be ego driven and they have great faith in their ability to deliver results. We are seeing that Australian executives in this sample, see themselves as generally doing the job well. Performing. And, when we relate their leadership styles to the cultural dimensions, we see that their leadership counts: strongly performing cultures, socially responsible cultures, competitive cultures that reward achievement among workers. On the basis of the perception that they are doing the job well.”
In other words, they have strong volition. Volition’s importance (either collective or individual) is implied in the very description of the passage of leadership: leaders “rise to the top”.
The 19th-century philosopher and theologian, John Henry Newman, in his classic The Scope and Nature of a University Education commented that the emerging scientific disciplines had a tendency to confine their actions to the physical alone, in the mistaken belief that the mental world could safely be kept separate. Newman imagined a university curriculum in which “physical and mechanical causes are exclusively to be treated of; volition is a forbidden subject.” His views are prophetic: that is exactly how leadership studies are done.
“Hitherto, intelligence and volition were accounted real powers; the muscles act, and their action cannot be represented by any scientific expression; a stone flies out of the hand and the propulsive force of the muscle resides in the will; but there has been a revolution, and our professor, I say, after speaking with the highest admiration of the human intellect, limits its independent action to the region of speculation, and denies that it can be a motive principle, or can exercise a special interference in the material world,” wrote Newman.
That professor may well be alive and well, and working in the area of leadership studies.