Article: Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Business and academics place strong value on transformational ’leadership’ versus ’management’. Leadership is an executive’s ability to inspire, motivate, and develop others. This is often in contrast to, or even at the expense of, managers, who budget, hire, and supervise. New research concludes that the unconditional love for leaders can be tempered when organisations take more time to make decisions. This can help to overcome a relatively fast and automatic dislike for managers according to the research from Dr Hannes Leroy at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and his co-authors.

Happy cartoon figures in front of computer.

Leadership is like love, it makes you blind.

Dr Leroy: “We studied if it is true that there is a benefit for organisations to hire a leader compared to hire a manager. In past studies we found that people have a romantic view of leadership over management that doesn't necessarily coincide with what we know from research. This preference may come at the high cost of failing to appreciate the value of management in many situations. When a company is in crisis or goes through significant change, you need leadership. In other situations, you might just need a manager, somebody who is hiring, supervising and budgeting.”

We studied if it is true that there is a benefit for organisations to hire a leader compared to hire a manager.

Natural preference for leaders

Studies across countries, across levels, from executives to students, whatever scenario people are given, they will always prefer the leader. There is a natural, irrational love for leadership. Whether searching for a new company-CEO or choosing politicians or a president, people automatically go for the leader even though they probably need a manager at that moment.

“We surveyed 703 people and found that leadership activities such as inspiring, encouraging and motivating people, are typically evaluated more positively than managerial activities such as hiring, supervising, and budgeting. There is a tendency among people to prefer and select the prototypical leader, even for a situation that really calls for prototypical managing activities,” said Dr Leroy.


Focus on the situation

Selection committees, for example, would do well to focus carefully on the most necessary strengths for the situation at hand, and hire for the specific fit of candidates to those needs, while consciously working to avoid being swayed by the specific labels that candidates or others use to describe their prior experiences or behavioural strengths.


Leadership development programmes

“Organisations might also consider whether their leadership development programmes are truly matched to their most pressing needs, or instead matched to prototypical leadership. This includes corporate training functions, which likely focus disproportionately on leading-associated strengths as a result of a contemporary social environment that tends to celebrate leadership at the expense of management,” Leroy said.


Be aware of over-valuing leader-associated terms

Decision-makers should be aware that people tend to hold overgeneralized preferences in favour of those described in leader-related terms versus manager-related terms and that these preferences hold even at the level of specific leader-associated behavioural strengths. While decision-makers are commonly advised today to guard against biases against female or minority candidates, or to be aware of the potential downsides of narcissistic, charismatic, or over-confident leaders, much less attention is given to the risks of over-valuing leader-associated terms and strengths and under-valuing manager-associated terms and strengths.

Organisations might also consider whether their leadership development programmes are truly matched to their most pressing needs, or instead matched to prototypical leadership.

Overcome the bias: slow down the decisions

When assessing top-level job candidates, one way to overcome a bias towards people seen as leaders versus people seen as managers, according to this research, is to slow the decision process and carefully consider the skills needed for the position. The seemingly unconditional love for leaders is tempered by slowing decision-makers down, thus overriding a relatively fast and automatic preference for leaders relative to managers.

To learn more, look into our open courses, The challenge of leadership or Successful people management

Prof.dr. H.L. (Hannes) Leroy
Professor in Leadership Development
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Hannes Leroy
Pile of books with vibrant bookmarks protruding from various pages, symbolizing in-depth research.

Related articles

RSM Discovery

Want to elevate your business to the next level using the latest research? RSM Discovery is your online research platform. Read the latest insights from the best researchers in the field of business. You can also subscribe to the newsletter to receive a bimonthly highlight with the most popular articles.

Do you want to learn more about this subject?

Check out these RSM education programmes

Your contact for more information:

Danielle Baan

Science Communication and Media Officer

Portrait of Erika Harriford-McLaren

Erika Harriford-McLaren

Corporate Communications & PR Manager

Erasmus University campus in autumn, showcasing its iconic red trees, viewed from across the campus pool.