While they might get all of the attention, inspiring leaders such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Sam Walton aren't the best fit for every business, new research suggests.
A study from the University of Iowa finds that sometimes leaders don't need to be transformational to lead a highly productive group. Instead, it might be better for a solid, stable manager to be seen as just one of the gang.
While businesses are continually looking for leaders whose energy, charisma and disruptive ideas lead to innovation and corporate growth, researchers found that sometimes, transformational leadership isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"Leaders need to take the pulse of their teams and establish the extent to which team identification is high," said Ning Li, an Iowa professor of management and organizations and co-author of the research. "If identification is high, transformational leadership efforts will [be met] with less success."
As part of the study, researchers examined data gathered from 55 work groups, consisting of 196 employees and their leaders, at two Chinese firms. They found that a transformational leadership style did little to improve a work group's citizenship and willingness to take charge of their own work, especially when the workers' sense of being part of a team was already high.
The study found that employees who are less likely to be influenced by transformational leaders are those who are self-motivated, as well as those who have more traditional values. Those workers, Li said, believe that doing a good job is what they're paid to do, not something for which they need inspiration.
Researchers found that there were times, in fact, when transformational leadership was actually counterproductive because it ended up getting in the way of a team that was already functioning at a high level.
The study indicates that if employees see the leader as one of their own, their team identification may improve and they may be more willing to help each other, or take charge of their own work. In those cases, Li said, transformational leaders, who by definition are not seen as part of the group, do little to motivate employees.
Based on the study's results, Li said firms must set aside their belief that a transformational leader is a good thing in all situations and instead appoint managers based on the strengths and personality of the team and its members.
"Leaders need to tailor their transformational actions accordingly, rather than use a one-size-fits-all, group- directed, transformational style," wrote the study's authors, which also include Texas A&M University's Dan Chiaburu, North Carolina State University's Bradley Kirkman and Zhitao Xie of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.
The research was recently published in the journal Personnel Psychology and the Academy of Management journal Perspectives.