Building an organization that doesn't need leadership
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Situational leadership theory suggests that leadership is neither direct nor simple, while path-goal theory and contingency theory suggest that various situational factors mediate leadership effectiveness. This means that tasks, subordinates, and unseen factors can influence the effectiveness of leadership behavior, bringing into question the assumption that an ideal leadership style exists for any situation. To Steven Kerr and John Jermier (1976), contingency theories that attempt to explain influence of a powerful superior on subordinates are limited because they fail to consider factors that can mitigate the effectiveness or need for leadership.
Individual, groups, tasks, and other variables can act as substitutes for leadership that diminish effectiveness of or need for leadership regardless of the behavior or style. Substitutes for leadership theory offers an intuitive explanation about how different leadership actions have different results in different situations.
Though the substitutes for leadership theory has received little research support (Yukl, 2010), it helps to illuminate how environmental factors influence leader and follower behavior, and provides practical applications for organizational and personal life. Rules, rewards, group dynamics, and individual characteristics are just a few of the variables that can influence individual and group behavior more than a leader (Kerr & Jermier, 1976).
In organizations, no matter how much a leader inspires employees to want to do their jobs, bureaucratic restrictions might prevent the employee from performing. Likewise, a self-managing employee might be able to perform his or her job regardless of being under a poor leader. Outside of work, substitutes for leadership theory provides axioms for helping people understand how they can perform even when under the influence of bad leadership, like poor leadership as no excuse for substandard performance.
For example, a motivated college student can face a classroom leader (teacher) who is not only disconnected from the classroom but who is also unable to communicate key concepts. Rather than wasting a semester sitting in meaningless lectures, the student could choose to become a self-sufficient learner in the subject by deeply exploring, and engaging in study groups. Similarly, an aspiring youth athlete can face a coach who has neither experience in the game, or knowledge about developing individuals and groups. Determined to excel despite poor leadership, individuals on the team can turn to their social networks for developmental support, conducting informal practice with parents, friends, and even teammates.
These examples demonstrate how individual character and initiative can serve as substitutes for leadership; individuals with motivation, networks, and resources can accomplish great things despite their leaders. The inverse position also deserves notice; strong leadership can create a highly cohesive environment in which the leader sacrifices individual, initiative, and critical thinking for the sake of the group goals. People who rely heavily on leadership to guide their choices and behaviors might have diminished capacity to perform at work or in life without leadership influence or may be influenced easily to act for the interests of the leader at their own expense.
For example, teaching graduate business management courses to active duty military officers on a military installation, I saw how a command-and-control collective developed layers of rules and processes that act as supporters of leadership and as replacements for leadership when voids emerge. These rules and processes have been developed into formulas and techniques that are drilled into all personnel so that others can step in to fill a broken command link.
The rules also help subordinates to perform even when the leader is insufficient. Just as a rigid hierarchy of power and rules can work in a static command-and-control environment, they can diminish system capacity to react in the face of a dynamic enemy who operates under a different set of rules, and can limit individual initiative and growth.
Outside the military sector, a career spent under a command-and-control leadership structure can result in diminished capacity to cope in dynamic civilian environments or to make personal decisions without a strong chain of command.
In other words, just as some individuals can perform despite weak leadership, others may not be able to perform without strong leadership. Those who rely too heavily on a leader to guide their behaviors might not be able to perform effectively at work or in life without the leader or may be easily influenced to act for the interests of the leader at the expense of themselves or others.
Kerr, S., & Jermier, J. M. (1976, December). Substitutes for leadership: Their meaning and measurement. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22(3), 375-403.
Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.