September 2019

How is leadership understood in different contexts?

David Hudson, Claire Mcloughlin

What does it mean to be a leader in different places and times? How are leaders’ styles, characteristics and practices evaluated? How does history and culture affect perceptions of leadership?

For a long time, leadership studies have addressed these questions by focusing on the properties and characteristics of individual leaders, viewing leadership as a particular set of traits or behaviours. But leaders cannot pursue real change without influencing people, or persuading them to change their ideas or behaviours. Leadership is always, everywhere, an interaction between leaders and followers. To understand how developmental leadership works, we need to better understand one vital but often overlooked ingredient: Followers.

This paper develops a basis for thinking about how followers form perceptions of leaders, the affect this can have on leadership practices, and why this matters for development. It identifies four key areas as important influences on how followers understand leadership:

  • Dimensions of assessment: Followers may or may not perceive the neat leadership categories researchers use to describe leaders. Instead, they are likely to ‘PIIIC’ their leaders, based on: 1) the position of a leader, which determines the source of their authority (legal-rational, traditional, charismatic); 2) their views on a particular issue; 3) whether they will act in their interests; 4) how far the leader matches the identity of their group; and 5) the characteristics they display, including how they conduct themselves.

  • Channels: Perceptions of leaders are rarely unmediated, because media affects matter what information is included (or not), how information is framed, and therefore whether and how information transforms individuals’ assessment of leaders.

  • Follower identity: The assessment of leaders is also moderated by the identity of the follower, whether their gender, age and other markers. Stereotypes about gender roles and norms that vary among women and men strongly moderate leader assessments, although evidence shows that these perceptions can be shifted.

  • Cultural context: Leadership is always situational, evaluated in a particular political setting, cultural environment and through the lens of gender power relations. Theories of leadership often don’t hold across cultures, because these contextual factors look different across and within societies. Culture is not static, however - partly because leaders can work to change cultural norms over time.

Leadership research tends to begin with a “western” conception of leadership and then account for variations in other societies in comparison to this starting point. Future DLP research can help to break leadership studies out of this western-centric bias by adopting a culturally embedded approach to understanding leadership and viewing leadership through the lens of followers.

This research agenda could have several potential implications for aid, including how leadership development programmes can adapt to local cultures, values and ideas. At the same time, programmes may consider how to better support the cultural agility of future leaders, to enable them to bridge groups of followers. Understanding the relationship between followers and leaders is vital for enabling leaders to solve some of the most complex, cross-cutting problems at the heart of development.

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How is leadership understood in different contexts?

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