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Everyone a Leader: A North American and European Comparison

Darlene Russ-Eft

AchieveGlobal, Inc. CA, USA

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Abstract

This study examined the competencies comprising leadership in North America and in Europe. In the U.S. and Canada, a total of 1871 critical incidents describing leadership behaviors were gathered from 761 managers and non-managers representing 469 different organizations. Five leadership factors, which appeared for both nominal leaders and those not in leadership positions, were described as the CLIMB model (Create a Compelling Future, Let the Customer Drive the Organization, Involve Every Mind, Manage Work Horizontally, and Build Personal Credibility.) Similar interviews with managers and non-managers were conducted in selected European countries, England, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands. These results were compared with results from North America. Implications are given for training and development practices and research.

Introduction

As we stand on the verge of a new millennium, we also stand on the edge of new challenges for leaders in organizations. These challenges include (1) increased competition and more demanding customers, (2) a weakening of the formal organization structure, (3) a predominance of the knowledge worker, and (4) a focus on projects and teams. Such challenges have, in turn, opened up opportunities for leadership throughout the organizations, regardless of title. Let’s consider each of these challenges briefly.

Increased Competition and More Demanding Customers

Whitman (1999) reviewed some of the historical, social, and economic factors leading to this increasing competition, indicating that today "competition is stiffer, consumers choosier, and profit margins thinner." Thus, today’s organization must focus on "better, faster, cheaper, newer." These are the standards that organizations throughout the world must meet to be competitive today.

A Weakening of the Formal Organization Structure

According to Johnsen and Swigert (1996), the traditional organization structure, with a hierarchical structure and well-defined responsibilities for executives, managers, and supervisors, does not work very well for organizations today. As the competitive need for "better, faster, cheaper, newer" pushed performance to its limits, a discrepancy was revealed between the traditional structure and how work actually gets done under such circumstances. No longer did authority cascade down from the top of the organization. Therefore, more and more organizations have evolved to structures which resemble a fishnet—strong, resilient, structured in its way, but flexible enough to drastically change shape, depending on the forces applied to it as well as the changing goals and directions of the organization

Fishnet organizations still have relationships and hierarchies, but they are temporary, lasting only as long as a task requires them. The emphasis is on the flow of cross-functional processes and decentralized decision-making rather than on rigid, top-down command and control. Boundaries between the organization and the rest of the world are deliberately blurred so the organization can get as close as possible to customers, and also enter into outside partnerships and alliances. Indeed, a recent discussion of the "e-lance" economy emphasizes changing of the organizations structure (Laubacher, 1998).

The Predominance of the Knowledge Worker

Information is one of an organization’s most valuable assets; knowledge workers are the men and women who create, analyze, and use it. Knowledge workers today are everywhere— in manufacturing, design, finance, information services, customer service, and technical support. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Silvestri, 1997), between 1986 and 1996 the number of "professional specialty" workers in the United States increased by 34 percent, compared to a 19 percent increase in the number of workers in all occupations. Between 1996 and 2006 growth in this category is expected to outstrip total growth in all occupational areas by more than 15 percent.

Some characteristics of knowledge workers are that (1) often they work on their own, (2) their work can be hard to observe, because it involves thought and judgment, and (3) they may feel a stronger allegiance to an academic discipline or field of expertise than to the organization. As for interactions and involvement with upper management, they often know more about their work than their manager, and they do not necessarily value management skills or a management position. Although knowledge workers tend to be self-managing, at least to the extent that they don’t want or need daily supervision, they’re not necessarily self-leading. They may need coaching to improve their performance, and they may need periodic updates to understand how their work fits into changing organizational objectives

A Growing Focus on Projects and Teams

Projects and teams appear to dominate most organizations today (See Russ-Eft, [1996] for a review.). Indeed, teamwork has been viewed as a critical business feature, leading to self-management (e.g., Manz & Sims, 1987), sociotechnical work design (e.g., Trist, 1981), and employment flexibility (e.g., Marchington, 1992). Projects and teams present leadership challenges different from those faced in the traditional, hierarchical organization. Particularly in cross-functional teams, resources are seldom under the direct control of a project manager, and reporting relationships that cut across functional boundaries can create conflicts between project and departmental goals. In addition to project teams, many organizations today have reconfigured departments and work groups into permanent teams, ranging from hierarchical, business-as-usual groups to totally self-managed entities. These new configurations present opportunities for leadership within teams, between teams and the rest of the organization, and between teams and customers, and the rest of the outside world.

What Do We Know About Executive Leadership?

Most leadership research has focused on formal leaders at the supervisory, managerial, and executive levels. For example, Moran, Latham, Hogeveen, and Russ-Eft (1994) undertook a study to identify the factors producing success in promoting organizational change. A cross-section of executives in both successful and less successful U. S. and Canadian organizations were asked to describe and rate their own success on 15 dimensions of organizational improvement, including productivity, cycle time, customer loyalty, profitability, employee retention, and market share. Responses from the successful organizations were compared with those from the less successful organizations. What emerged was a clear picture of what the successful executives did that made the difference.

These findings were summarized in five key strategies, the CLIMB model of executive effectiveness (Richterman & Hurson, 1996, 1997). The CLIMB model describes the five leadership strategies that outstanding executives follow to ensure the success of an organizational change initiative:

Create a compelling future;

Let the customer drive the organization;

Involve every mind;

Manage work horizontally;

Build personal credibility.

But, What About Leaders Throughout the Organization?

Given the trends described earlier, it is critical to consider leaders throughout the organization. Furthermore, an examination of leadership needs to take place in a variety of organizations and in a variety of cultures.

Two questions guide the research in the present paper. (1) Do the skills and behaviors required of people at non-supervisory levels differ from those required of executives, managers, and other nominal leaders? And, if so, in what ways do they differ? This question will be examined through a review of available literature and then through data collection based in the United States and Canada. (2) Do these skills and behaviors differ for those in Europe as compared with North America? And, if so, in what ways do they differ? This question will be addressed through data collection in Europe and comparison with the North American results.

Review of Leadership Literature

Reviews of the research and theoretical literature on leadership (Russ-Eft, Berrey, Hurson, & Brennan, 1996; Burke, 1997) revealed the following:

All the studies examined leadership in formal leaders - executives and managers - not in technical workers, non-management professionals, project leaders, team leaders, and front-line employees. Yet, in today’s pared-down organizations, these employees are not only increasing in number; in the absence of traditional managers, they are precisely the men and women who have leadership virtually foisted on them.

There was no consensus on what makes a good leader. Lists of skills and attributes differed from study to study. It seemed that every professor, management guru, and strategist had his or her view, and overlapping findings were relatively rare.

The opinions of survey respondents tended to reflect theories in vogue at the time of a particular study. For example, when Peters and Waterman’s best-seller In Search of Excellence was scoring points in executive board rooms, over 30 percent of respondents in studies of that period cited "management by walking around" as a desirable leadership behavior. In earlier and later studies, that advice rarely appeared.

Most studies described leadership in general terms. For instance, while a study might mention integrity as an attribute of effective leaders, researchers rarely explored the day-to-day behaviors or skills that embody or communicate that attribute.

This literature review revealed that new research was needed. Specifically, research was needed to examine effective leadership at various levels in organizations.

Study 1: Leadership in North America

Method

Participants

Respondents came from a variety of organizations, including heavy manufacturing, high-tech manufacturing, financial services, health and social services, business services, retail and distribution, transportation and utilities, government, and education. The study included organizations ranging in size from fewer than 250 employees to more than 10,000 employees from all of the major regions of the U.S. and Canada. These organizations had one thing in common: all had seen above average growth in the number of employees over the past three years.

Interviewers contacted 915 organizations and completed interviews at 469 organizations (a response rate slightly higher than 50 percent). One or two managers or one or two non-managers were interviewed at each of the cooperating organizations. The total sample size was 761; about half of the sample were managers and half non-managers.

Materials

The interviewers asked two main critical-incident questions:

1. Think of a time in the past month when a person in your organization showed good leadership.

What did the person do that showed good leadership?

What was the result of this behavior?

What was the person’s position in your organization?

2. Think of a time in the past month when a person in your organization showed poor leadership.

What did the person do that showed poor leadership?

What was the result of this behavior?

What was the person’s position in your organization?

In addition to the questions on leadership, interviewers asked questions regarding the characteristics of the respondent, such as job title.

Analyses

The responses to each question were entered into a database along with information identifying the characteristics of the participants. Each incident identified as "critical" by the respondent, or judged by the analyst as so intended, was considered as a separate event. In some of these events, the subject of the incident did several things that showed either good or poor leadership. Since the unit of analysis in critical incident studies is the specific behavior, duplicates of the entire response were entered so that each specific instance of good or poor leadership behavior could be analyzed as a separate entity. This procedure permitted the analyst to review the different incidents for classification purposes, while still being able to identify the entire response.

A total of 1,871 usable critical incidents were obtained from the sample. Of these incidents, 1,264 described the actions of a manager or supervisor and 607 described the actions of a non-supervisor. The only responses not used in the analysis were those that were clearly not an incident or were uninterpretable.

The analysis of the incidents followed the guidelines set forth by Flanagan (1954) and Russ-Eft (1995). The steps included the following:

1. Select a general frame of reference.

2. Sort a sample of incidents into a limited number of piles in accordance with the frame of reference selected.

3. Formulate tentative headings for major areas.

4. Sort additional incidents into these major areas and set up new sub-categories as necessary. During this process all incidents considered so similar that they would remain together regardless of changes in category definitions were clipped together and treated as a unit.

5. Prepare tentative definitions for major headings as well as generalized statements for each of the main categories of incidents.

6. Make a tentative selection of the level of specificity/generality to be used in reporting the definition.

7. Redefine major areas and categories as necessary while incidents were being classified.

8. Review definitions and revise where necessary after all incidents had been classified.

9. Record the classification of each incident.

10. Have an independent check made of the classification of all incidents.

Competencies can be thought of as though they are embedded components of a molecular structure of human behavior. In such a model, the behavioral indicators called critical incidents comprise the "sub-atomic particles." These critical incidents can be classified into larger units called competencies, or "atoms." Such competencies can be classified into larger sets of competencies, or "elements." Finally, a set of competencies can be classified into even larger sets, or "molecules." (See Russ-Eft, 1995 for a further discussion of competencies and different approaches to identifying competencies.)

Thus a number of critical incidents, or behavioral indicators or "sub-atomic particles," such as "Got the staff connected to PC systems without being given step-by-step directions" and "Single-handedly started recycling projects throughout the company," were grouped into a competency labeled "Takes initiative to solve a problem." These, in turn, were placed, along with other lower-level competencies (such as "Implements good ideas," "Works extra hours or unsupervised," and "Helps others") under a broader competency, such as "Taking responsibility."

Results

Table 1 presents these results. There were three major findings. (1) Leadership can be defined in terms of 17 competencies. These competencies indicate the behaviors people most often report when asked about leadership. They represent what people see leaders do. (2) These 17 leadership competencies describe leadership at all levels of management, from the CEO to the front-line supervisor. As one might expect, executives, managers, and supervisors were mentioned more often than other employees. However, one-third of the leadership examples featured non-supervisory employees. (3) These competencies align with earlier research on successful executive behaviors. Without exception, all 17 competencies identified in this study were related to the five executive strategies in the CLIMB model.

Study 2: Leadership in Europe

Method

Participants

Respondents worked in one of four European countries: England, Germany,

Table 1

Listing of Competencies by Employment Level (Using the CLIMB Strategies)

CLIMB Strategy and Competency

Non-supervisory

Supervisory

Total

Total as % of Grand Total
         

1. Create a compelling future.

18

111

129

7%

Setting or sharing a vision

       

Managing a change

       
         
2. Let the customer drive the organization.

32

34

66

3%

Focusing on the customer

       
         

3. Involve every mind.

190

738

928

50%

Dealing with individuals

       

Supporting teams and groups

       

Sharing information

       

Solving problems, making decisions

       
         

4. Manage work horizontally.

159

152

311

17%

Managing business processes

       

Managing projects

       

Displaying technical skills

       

Managing time and resources

       
         

5. Build personal credibility.

208

229

437

23%

Taking responsibility

       
Taking initiative beyond job
requirements
       

Handling emotions

       

Displaying professional ethics

       

Showing compassion

       

Making credible presentations

       
         

Grand Total

   

1871

100%

Ireland, and the Netherlands. They came from a variety of organizations, including heavy manufacturing, high-tech manufacturing, financial services, health and social services, business services, retail and distribution, transportation and utilities, government, and education. The study included organizations ranging in size from fewer than 250 employees to more than 10,000 employees.

Interviewers contacted 20 different people and completed 18 interviews.(a 90 percent response rate). Both managers and non-managers were interviewed.

Materials

The interviewers asked the two main critical-incident questions, as in the previously described study in North America.

Analysis

The analysis followed the same procedures as those used in the previously described study in North America.

Results

Table 2 presents the results comparing the results from North America with those found in Europe. First, there are similarities in the data for North American and Europe. The same leadership competencies emerged in Europe as in North America. Thus, the CLIMB model of leadership is relevant in Europe as well as North America. Second, the results show that the CLIMB model holds for supervisory and non-supervisory personnel in Europe. This is also a significant similarity.

There are, however, some differences. First, more incidents of non-supervisory personnel taking on leadership behaviors emerged from the European data collection. Second, the distribution of incidents revealed some interesting differences. A smaller percentage of incidents appeared in the strategy "Involve Every Mind." There appeared to be less description of leaders "recognizing" others, for example. In contrast, a higher percentage of incidents appeared in the strategy, "Manage Work Horizontally." This latter group of incidents described actions involving cross-functional teams or cross-training, such as the following:

The operator did all the schedules and trained in each area. With this cross-training if someone is out on holidays or off absent, whoever it is they can cover whoever is out.

Conclusions

The key findings answered the two research questions. First and most importantly, the CLIMB model did indeed describe leadership for both managers and non-managers. Because the critical incidents describe people at every level, the CLIMB model defines leadership not just for executives, but for every employee. One significant implication is that it is possible to evaluate leadership using the very same criteria for the executive as for the front-line worker.

Second, the model does, in fact, describe leadership behaviors in both North America and Europe. This means that the same leadership criteria are applicable in the North American and European cultures.

In addition to identifying the competencies of leadership, the critical-incident study produced the following key findings—some new, and some important affirmations of earlier thinking.

(1) Organizations today cannot survive if leadership is limited to the CEOs, executives and managers (Tichy, 1997). Life moves too quickly, and top management is too removed from the action. As the incidents demonstrated, leadership opportunities can arise at any moment.

(2) People define leaders by what they do—or don’t do—in "small" moments. Respondents in the study talked about people who took a moment to coach, to bolster confidence, to resolve a dispute, or to go after a resource. Note that this is in marked contrast to the commonly held belief that leaders define themselves through heroic, high-profile actions.

Table 2

Listing of Competencies by Employment Level for North America and Europe (Using the CLIMB Strategies)

 

North America

Europe

CLIMB Strategy and Competency

Non-supervisory

Supervisory

Non-supervisory

Supervisory

         

1. Create a compelling future.

18

111

5

4

Setting or sharing a vision

       

Managing a change

       
         

2. Let the customer drive the organization.

32

34

2

2

Focusing on the customer

       
         

3. Involve every mind.

190

738

5

6

Dealing with individuals

       

Supporting teams and groups

       

Sharing information

       
Solving problems, making decisions        
         

4. Manage work horizontally.

159

152

10

3

Managing business processes

       

Managing projects

       

Displaying technical skills

       

Managing time and resources

       
         

5. Build personal credibility.

208

229

8

6

Taking responsibility

       
Taking initiative beyond job requirements        

Handling emotions

       

Displaying professional ethics

       

Showing compassion

       

Making credible presentations

       
         

Grand Total

607

1264

30

21

(3) The instant that people experience you as a leader, they start keeping score. It’s not clear why, but the study found that if you step up to a leadership challenge, people will judge you as a leader not only in that situation, but from that point on. Their criteria: how well you perform the 17 competencies.

(4) For people to see you as a leader, you need the complete set of leadership skills. Just as strength in one or two academic subjects does not make a good student, in the eyes of the respondents strength in a few leadership competencies does not make a good leader.

Implications for Practice and Research

If leadership exists at all levels, then we can assume that leadership development is needed at all levels within organizations. Indeed, the need for such leadership development among non-supervisory personnel may be even greater than for executives. Once an individual reaches the executive level, he or she has most likely participated in some formal or informal leadership development. Individuals at other levels within organizations have probably never been exposed to such leadership development. Thus, the role of human resource development will be to expand leadership development to everyone and to make that development appropriate for all levels within organizations. (See Bergmann, Hurson, and Russ-Eft [1999] for further discussion.)

The results also imply that the same leadership training can be applicable for all levels within an organization and for organizations located in North America and in Europe. Furthermore, the use of the critical incidents can provide instructional designers with specifics as to the positive and negative aspects of leadership behaviors. In addition, the assessment of leadership skills can remain the same across levels with organizations in North America and Europe.

There are some limitations, however, to this research. One of the most obvious is that the sample within Europe is limited, both in terms of countries and in terms of respondents. It may be that more significant differences would emerge with a larger sample. Another limitation is that these results are only based on North America and Europe. Although some data collection in South America and the Middle East reveals similar findings, further cross-cultural research is needed.

References

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This document was added to the Education-line database 24 September 1999