Leadership has always been crucial to the effective functioning of society, and organisational performance depends in large part on the successful management of human capital. Throughout history, leadership has been vital to the fortune of companies and entire economies alike. Yet today we face an increasingly complex world that requires leaders to deal with what we call "wicked problems" - challenges that have so many variables invovled that it's not possible to solve them with natural-born charisma or talent.
Fortunately, at RSM we house more leadership experts per square meter than any other leading business school and use state-of-the-art management science facilities for both fundamental and applied research. While we investigate many different aspects of leadership we are all passionate about one thing: unravelling the mechanisms of effective leadership and leadership development.
The insecurity resulting from increasing rates of change can hit organisations by surprise. It can produce disruptions that challenge the status quo almost overnight.
Conditions like this call for strong leadership in every area of business and society, and leaders of organisations are increasingly expected to shape the future of their respective industries – and society as a whole.
We need strong business leaders
But rising demands can leave them feeling overwhelmed. Business leaders get burnout, feel like their careers have been derailed, and might be tempted into malfeasance and doing the wrong thing, not because they are bad people or even bad leaders, but because they were not trained for the type of big challenges that confront them.
What works and what doesn't?
We need to fix this training problem. Understandably, there are increasing numbers of providers offering leadership development programmes in response to this ‘leadership vacuum’. Many of them make use of innovative and experiential methods which are highly engaging and attract a lot of attention. However, there are very few guarantees that these programmes actually work.
In fact, existing research demonstrates that even though participants feel satisfied upon completing such a programme, they might not have actually learned that much.The result is an increasing disbelief – and even cynicism – towards leadership development.
That’s not a helpful outcome. So we are working hard to restore faith in leadership development by investigating scientifically what works and what doesn’t. If we know this, then we can set standards of excellence, and improve how leaders are trained and coached.
And rather than limiting ourselves to one specific model we look at leadership development from every angle.
An authentic leader is highly self-aware, meaning they understand their strengths and weaknesses. They act according to their core beliefs and values. There are lots of benefits to authentic leadership. It builds trust, increases transparency and psychological safety, and enhances everyone’s feeling of engagement with their work.
Too much authenticity?
At the same time, too much authenticity might jeopardise the outcomes of working relationships. In fact, studies have shown that ‘feeling authentic’ doesn’t mean that others see you as authentic. Quite the opposite.
Research at the Erasmus Centre for Leadership focuses on the outcomes of relationships that feature authentic leadership, and digs deep into understanding the factors that produce it. We look into mindfulness training and the effects of a climate of inclusion, as well as how individuals can develop a unique authentic self that brings feeling authentic and being perceived as authentic into unison.
Principle investigator is Dr Hannes Leroy, associate professor of human resource management. He is passionate about developing leaders to use their authentic self as a source of their leadership strength.
Leaders play a prominent role in determining whether or not there is ethical behaviour in their organisations.
There are broad leadership theories that acknowledge that a focus on ethics is a core component of leadership; they include theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership and authentic leadership, and they are researched by our fellow teams at the Erasmus Centre for Leadership.
What we focus on here is the topic of ethics, which links with the study of leader behaviour in other fields, such as in procedural justice.
Fairness and morality
Specifically, the enactment of procedures that ensure fair decision-making signals to employees that the organisation considers morality to be an important value. Research shows procedural fairness promotes co-operative and ethical behaviour in groups and organisations.
At the same time, some elements of the role of leadership tend to influence the leader’s psychological functioning. For example, having a lot of power may make leaders act in less ethical ways in some circumstances, but a lot of power can also make them act more ethically.
Power and immorality
Issues addressed in this part of the Erasmus Centre for Leadership include the immoral and moral behaviour stimulated by power, how members of an organisation cope with unfair leaders, and comparing the roles of intuitive and controlled processes in leadership ethics.
Principle investigator Prof. Marius van Dijke leads the team that researches the implications of these issues in theory and practice, and the kind of tools that encourage employees and leaders to function both productively and ethically.
Building a sense of ‘team’ or organisational identity is an important function of leadership; it develops a feeling of inclusion for everyone involved – the ‘we’ – in the organisation.
The kind of leadership that can build employees’ connection with this organisational identity is valuable for mobilising and motivating employees.
But some employees feel less commitment – as we see in some organisations now. If leaders can turn that feeling around by establishing connections to the organisation’s identity, then the firm gains an increasingly competitive advantage in business.
Using the identity function
An important aspect of the work in the Erasmus Centre for Leadership is developing our understanding of how leaders can build and use this identity function of leadership. There are two sides to this: first, how leaders represent and embody the identity of the organisation, and second, how leaders can shape how employees see the organisation.
Principle investigator Prof. Steffen Giessner researches at the intersection of organisational psychology and management, and leads a team that explores how to build the ‘we’ in an organisation.
Leadership for Innovation
Leading for innovation emphasises change rather than preservation, and focuses on a set of behaviours that differ from traditional leadership styles. This style of leadership includes an essential element; creativity.
It is distinguished from other types of leadership because it encompasses a variety of work environments and tasks. Traditionally, it was important in work settings in which managers led groups of creative experts – such as R&D environments and the creative industries.
Where innovation happens
But with the expansion of innovation into other parts of the organisation, this kind of leadership is found in other places too:
- Leaders for innovation can be found in production and manufacturing teams using lean production methods that emphasise continuous process innovation.
- They can be found in marketing teams actively scanning for new business opportunities.
- They lead business units
- And they sometimes lead entire organisations that need continuous improvement and bold innovation in order to thrive
Innovation leadership environments
Just as there are so many work environments that need leadership for innovation, leadership for innovation comes in a range of styles. Imagine leading an innovation team working exclusively on a continuous project to bring a series of new products to market – it’s completely different from leading a stable and permanent team that occasionally becomes involved in innovation.
Leadership for innovation was a ‘nice to have’, now it’s a ‘must-have’, and for companies to thrive, it’s important to understand the environment in which leadership for innovation is needed. In a sense, it’s the leadership paradigm of the future.
Creativity for the win
In a global IBM study, 1,500 CEOs showed they valued creativity as the most important aspect of leadership, yet even now, creativity and innovation restrict rather than facilitate management careers. Clearly there is a world to win in the area of leadership for innovation.
Our research is led by principle investigator Prof. Daan Stam, whose research interests include leadership and communication, in particular in innovation and operational settings.
Effective communication with customers is vital for an organisation’s performance in the marketplace. Companies interact with their customers via sales departments and contact centres. Leaders in sales and customer care are constantly challenged to manage their teams to become more productive and find ways to make more profit.
Three unique elements
There are at least three elements unique for leadership in sales and customer care.
- It’s for a large part about coaching agents how to behave in interpersonal interactions with other people, such as customers.
- With this interpersonal nature of the work, employees experience and cope with high levels of rejection from customers.
- Sales departments and contact centres often work with closely controlled performance evaluations, in terms of clearly defined KPIs, which raise employees’ concerns for failure.
This research programme aims to advance and test novel insights into how leaders can help employees overcome these challenges.
The research is led by principle investigator Bart Dietz, who conducts research on sales, sales leadership and HR.
There’s a demand for a more ethical, people-centred management, and servant leadership may well be what organisations need right now.
This 40-year old idea adds a moral component to leadership thinking, and is possibly more relevant than ever because company policies are increasingly reflecting society’s concerns. Giving attention to all stakeholders will be important for long-term profits.
‘Servant leadership’ is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf forty years ago, and explicitly emphasises the needs of followers. Although influence is generally considered to be the key element of leadership, servant leadership changes the focus of this influence by emphasising the idea of service within the leader-follower relationship, and the impact that an organisation has on society.
Research into servant leadership at the Erasmus Centre for Leadership further helps us to develop a general theoretical framework that incorporates the most important antecedents, underlying processes, and consequences.
But our explorations of servant leadership are not in isolation. We look at the implications of new knowledge about servant leadership for the way we train and coach business leaders, and on the huge subject of leadership development.
Principle investigator is Prof. Dirk van Dierendonck. Find out more about our research on servant leadership using the links below.
Leaders’ emotions and well-being
Researchers and practitioners often talk of the importance of leadership in driving the well-being of employees. However, there is often less attention for the emotions and well-being of the leaders themselves. Is it because leaders enjoy higher levels of well-being, or does everyone take this assumption for granted?
In response to recent attention to the dark sides of leadership – such as abusive supervision, leader narcissism, and other undesirable uses of leaders’ power –teasing out the nuances in the emotional and well-being experiences of leadership is what interests researchers. It’s a focus that provides a human-centred perspective to existing leadership development approaches.
Is loneliness part of leadership?
Understanding the loneliness experience among leaders is a core research theme. Despite rising interest in this subject in practice, loneliness in leadership contexts has received little academic attention. The literature also sometimes assumes that leader loneliness is similar, if not equal, to general loneliness.
Leadership often involves directing teams, influencing strategic directions, and making high-pressure decisions in organisations, but moving beyond a generalised approach allows a focus on leadership-specific factors, such as leader power, leader-follower interactions, and in-role expectations that may all trigger loneliness at work. Besides this, what are the direct and indirect impacts on organisational functioning such as undesirable team behaviour or inhibited decision making – as well as the negative effects on leader functioning such as burnout, sleep deprivation, and loss of self-control?
What does the range of leader emotions mean to leaders?
The functions of leaders’ emotions are another route for research. The emotions of leaders affect their teams both automatically and consciously. On one hand, leaders’ emotions may spread positive and/or negative vibes to teams through daily interactions. On the other, leaders’ emotions may signal that an adjustment to the current way of working is necessary. For example, research has shown that leaders sometimes express anger to motivate team members. And there is a related question: how do leaders regulate their own, as well as their teams’ negative emotions, especially in times of change and crisis?
To address these questions about loneliness, functions of emotions, and emotion regulation in leadership contexts, multiple methods include qualitative interviews, surveys, experiments, and interventions. Insights are published in practice-oriented platforms such as Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, and in public talks.
The research is led by Hodar Lam, a PhD candidate in organisational behaviour whose research focuses on emotions and well-being issues at work.
Watch the online lecture: ‘Understanding loneliness at work during COVID-19 and in the future’.
‘Office in a Small City’ by Edward Hopper, 1953, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City