Leadership Ambiguity and Ambivalence: A Critical Solution

B.R. BROCATO

Department of Sociology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas

STUART S. GOLD, PhD

College of Management and Technology, Walden University

USA

BRB029@SHSU.EDU

stuart.gold@waldenu.edu

Abstract

To identify the empirical reliability of contemporary leadership traits research found in management studies, the authors conducted a content analysis of the use of transformational and charismatic concepts from a sample of leadership research published in refereed journals from 1988 to 2008. The content analysis of the operational definitions revealed the use of leadership traits was opaque at best and demonstrated that the management research surveyed was comprised of a hybrid of psychological constructs. Upon closer inspection, the authors identified an implied habitus of stakeholders’ leadership perceptions that informed a social psychological structure comprising 10 distinctive intrapersonal and interpersonal referents associated with organizational and social conduct. The iconic referents are inferred from implied social and organizational heuristic biases subjects employ in an organizational setting. This distinction allowed the authors to present an alternative method for mapping emergent leader and follower perceptions. A weighted score is obtained that proves parsimonious and empirically feasible instead of fixating on a leader’s ephemeral traits or simply workers’ self-reports about management effectiveness. Employing a postmodern mixed-method evaluative methodology in place of contemporary modernist perspectives, the authors portend an end to ambiguous and ambivalent leadership traits studies and recommend strengthening research efforts to reveal socially structured decision-making heuristics that result in successful or unsuccessful emergent group performances. Moreover, the authors believe a postmodern paradigm would help organizations identify a group’s willingness to act in a way that tests individual limits and stretches group or all stakeholders’ boundaries, what the authors term a Star Trek Affective State.

Key-Words: - Leadership, Organization, Transformational, Charismatic, Intrapersonal, Traits


1   Introduction

As more companies employ advanced information and communications technologies to organize work in virtual environments, human resources managers need parsimonious metrics to evaluate the compatibility of strategic initiatives, implementation costs, and organizational communication requirements. Especially difficult is the development of management models that can mitigate organization/stakeholders’ cross-cultural, cross-gender, and cross-generational communication biases that lead to individual and group conflicts [1]. Unfortunately, leadership studies have primarily focused on face-to-face interactions instead of recognizing two major contemporary shifts: 1) a growing requirement to develop rigorous empirical leadership models and 2) to meet new postmodern challenges [2] facing virtual organizations comprised of a diverse global workforce with competing cultural beliefs [3].

Baby Boomer leaders exiting from the workforce have placed organizations in precarious positions because of a modernist leadership mythology as contemporary companies face ambiguous hiring and retention challenges and opportunities. Additionally, company leaders also face serious resource-allocation and succession-planning challenges arising from ambiguous and poorly investigated leadership pedagogy. Companies now and in the future require innovative models and measurement solutions that improve organizational performances by resolving the conceptual ambiguities and ambivalent behaviors surrounding the heuristic biases and cultural beliefs of a new generation of employees and production environments [4; 5; 6]. We suggest that reducing the conceptual ambiguity and ambivalence of leadership traits and leaders’ behaviors [7] would allow researchers to more closely examine the salient characteristics of organizational performance in varying cultural contexts found in global work environments.

2   Leadership Mythology

From the common leadership symbols embodied within films, novels, architecture, art, and academic literature, readers found transformative or charismatic leaders who were exalted and demonstrated at times ambivalent behaviors while extending humanity’s social, moral, and economic progress [8; 9; 10; 11; 12]. Moreover, the generational success of Star Trek, first as a science fiction novel by the late Gene Roddenberry and then as a television and film success for more than three generations of viewers, demonstrated a resonance with inherited western leadership concepts and was an appropriate referent of the Americanization of global perspectives during the Cold War years [13]. Certainly, management studies have relied on these sweep-of-history engulfing scopes, reinforcing rational, behavioristic  models first derived from Enlightenment philosophy and carried into the late industrial and modern work environments, including some critical analyses of iconic symbols tied to modern production styles [14; 15; 16; 17; 18; 19; 20; 21].

Regardless of one’s philosophical or theoretical orientation, underlying these leadership mythologies is a workforce limited in mind and behavioral scope that required leaders to act as teachers of normative behaviors who also closely monitored and shaped employees’ responses and social networking environments [22; 23]. Perhaps, not so surprising, Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management [24] haunts modernist perspectives regarding superior leadership or leaders as captains of industry. Additionally, we will later in this paper invoke the latest Star Trek: the Next Generation television series as a more contemporary allegorical referent as an appropriate construct from which researchers can escape leadership mythology, ambiguity, and ambivalence. This postmodern allegory can also provide researchers opportunities to re-examine leader-follower dynamics, and eliminate modernist teleological arguments found in contemporary management literature.

3   A Critical Literature Review

Would researchers or academics addressing the concepts associated with charismatic or transformational leadership traits find clear distinctions? We believe the literature remained opaque in this area. From a representative sample of the research studies as given in Table 1 in the Appendix, the leaderships traits – transformational, charismatic, and transactional – spanned behavioral approaches, contingency, leader-member exchange, and neocharismatic theories; all purporting to explain the bi-directionality of leaders and followers behaviors [25; 26; 27; 28; 29]. The logical fallacy here is in the research designs that discuss types of variables (traits) without clearly formulated statements of the relationships between specified variables (leaders, workers). Certainly, ceteris paribus, leaders manage and workers complete tasks. However, psychological functionalism as a methodology heavily weighted leadership traits as a determinate of effective group performance errs by leaving out an investigation into the social component of behaviors in general and in these cases, organizational perceptions in general. Moreover, as shown in Table 1, researchers’ definitions were more likely to fit a continuum of perceived internal states than provide a clear demarcation of the various leadership traits’ meaning to subjects and thus, group beliefs about their leader’s performance or their willingness to meet organizational goals.

Simply, researchers were measuring intrapersonal perceptions put in play by the research design in support of their research goals. For example, researchers’ methodology and guiding hypotheses consistently asked subjects to select whether a particular leadership trait was rewarding or satisfying in the work environment. Subjects in some cases were to decide whether a leader was charismatic, transformational, or transactional in their actions, and did those actions uphold certain normative standards about their company, their position in the company, and their responsibility to the company. Certainly most management studies today (and those we reviewed) would teach an affirmative response. However, what does it mean to workers’ when leaders demonstrate a transformative or transactional state at one moment and then are ambivalent in their behaviors the next moment? Moreover, charismatic definitions often mentioned in the literature attributed mythological proportions to leaders who have a positive interpersonal force that acts on followers to obtain organizational goals. Are charismatic leaders then able to outperform other leaders because their workers are more malleable than other workers are? Are workers differentiated enough to require either a transformative, transactional, or charismatic leader? Does a correlation between subjects’ perceptions and operational leadership traits reveal anything about group or leader performance? Could there be other more pertinent variables to consider? The literature remained silent in most cases and led us to question the efficacy of the operationalized concepts; instead finding that these concepts were tautological, derived from discursive humanistic studies that failed to provide reliable indicators of successful leadership behaviors or how these traits were predictive of successful or unsuccessful group performances.

4   Findings and Discussion

What we proposed to demonstrate was twofold: first, researchers have made a one-side logical fallacy in the attribution of leadership traits, and second, that researchers should re-examine the emergent salient social and psychological interactions among managers and subordinates [30; 31], not investigate in isolation leaders’ ephemeral behavioral traits. What we inferred from a content analysis of the sociological and organizational literature [32; 33] shown in Table 1 was that transformational, transactional, and charismatic leadership traits were often associated with researchers’ attempts to measure whether a group of subjects found a particular leadership trait acceptable. Researchers relied on phenomenological rationales to associate a leader or person’s behaviors to constructed leadership traits that were in our estimation immeasurable, simply because these traits are located in the minds of individuals, thus disregarding a cardinal rule of the scientific method [34]. Simply, we found a commoditization of leadership traits quasi-empirically produced similar to a variety of flavors that could fit most organizational palates. To remedy the ambiguity and obscurity of leadership traits, we reexamined Table 1 and compiled the various social structural referents affective rationales to understand better what leadership as a symbol actually referred to in a group or community setting per the research settings we found in the literature reviewed and as shown in Table 2 in the Appendix.

This was necessary because we discovered from our investigation a common grammatical or logical error occurred when researchers conceptualized the affective context of leadership traits. For example, upon closer inspection of transformational, we found as an attributive adjective, it was most often associated with organizational structures or used in an organizationally bound context. Similarly, charismatic as an attributive adjective was associated with intrapersonal and group dynamics, which arise from personal judgments that lead to social decision-making patterns. However, in no instance could we find that singling out an attributive adjective provided reliable knowledge about leadership traits or leaders’ behaviors. In fact, the research unavoidably demonstrated one-side logical fallacies. For example, we can attribute to someone the referents of old, bald, thin, over weight, religious, nonreligious, transformative, charismatic, but what have we identified about the person’s social standing, status within the group or their managerial behavior? Scientifically, can we infer a consistent range of behaviors based on our attributed adjective? Can we generalize to a larger population based on a simple attribution? We would answer no.

Another inherent logical fallacy in management studies is the lack of falsifiable hypotheses [35] when we speak about leadership traits. Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill, Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi were attributed charismatic and transformational traits. However, there cannot be a falsifiable claim with the term of charismatic although objectively these historical personas were comprised of more than a single leadership trait. How much charisma is necessary to sway a nation? How malleable must a people be before charismatic, transformational, or transactional leaders can affect performance? What have we learned about their leadership through the use of such adjectives? Leadership researchers’ findings suggested that more ink appears wasted on modifying traits or beliefs descriptions than would seem necessary, with new concepts arising with each successive generation of social scientists. What we should be addressing are not the reported traits or perceptions and subsequent association or correlation with a specific individual’s behavior, but we should clarify the (behavioral) consequences from (organizational) contexts that lend themselves to emergent properties. Leaders’ and followers’ social beliefs should not be measured separately, but should be viewed as a habitus of emergent states comprised of individuals’ (qua-groups’) narratives [36; 37] and thus measured in terms of subjects’ heuristic biases, not on the traits ascribed to a particular leader.

To overcome this logical weakness in leadership research, we operationalized the concepts transformational, transactional, and charismatic as nominal adjectives linked to specific social belief structures from Table 1 and presented subsequently in Table 2 in the Appendix. Table 2 revealed that leadership traits once so unmanageable were reducible to two key structural factors: Organizational and Other/self beliefs. Relying on Bourdieu’s [38] social habitus model, we hypothesized a mixed-method model [39] that allowed us to develop a matrix of prominently held beliefs that could demonstrate leader and worker alignment (s) as shown in Table 3. Further, we present Table 4 as an illustration of a simple working model based on the weighted evaluation matrix that would measure leaders’ and followers’ ranking of organizational leadership symbols (institutional/cultural power) and their intrapersonal beliefs regarding effective leadership (personal/other belief structure).

Using Table 4, researchers can more closely investigate intragroup and intergroup scores in terms of beliefs structures. Moreover, researchers can use the evaluation matrix to compare management perspectives as well as map indicators of willingness or unwillingness on the parts of all members to perform in a group or organizational setting, thus relegating leadership traits to a less ambiguous role, and eliminating the necessity to account for ambivalent actions and group perceptions. Finally, the evaluation matrix would provide researchers an opportunity to study relative frequencies and the randomness of group responses, thus promoting a strong method where theoretical claims would be subject to falsification.

5   Summary

The postmodern evaluation model posited here accepted a posteriori that each group brings complex personal, cultural, and institutional biases to a work setting [40; 41; 42). In particular, we developed this metric from a postmodern theoretical model based on the multidimensionality of social behaviors structured in an organizational and group habitus found in the literature reviewed. The model triangulates organizational power constructs, interpersonal, and intrapersonal cognitive belief structures that we recognized as heuristic biases, akin to Foucault’s [43] epistrophē eis heauton, an intentionally of self integration discovered in cooperative or uncooperative contexts. We identified five organizational icons and five individual icons indicative of organizational and cultural structures of conduct and normative behavior [44] that lead to “expectations” [45] among group members. We proposed that a multidimensional model [46] of leaders and workers’ perceptions would prove parsimonious when measuring a group’s willingness to act in a way that cooperatively tests limits and stretches boundaries, mapping what we have termed a Star Trek Affective State.

In our estimation, a Star Trek Affective State becomes a more reasonable construct that refers less to a central authority figure, dominant/subordinate roles, or colored with the ambiguity of ascribed modernist leadership traits. Instead, managers and workers organizational behaviors, ambivalent or not, “rely both on past repertoires and situational improvisation” [47] that leads to unpredictable emergent group behaviors; an evolutionary psychological condition termed the “Savanna Principle” by Satoshi Kanazawa [48]. Further, the evaluation matrix demonstrated the comparative and structural nuances, schemes, habitus that make up social identities in the workplace.  Specifically, a postmodern comparative approach allowed a recombining of intrapersonal and interpersonal traits, emotional intelligence, or multiple intelligences when assessing whether a candidate is an effective leader and whether their leadership would prove beneficial in a particular organizational setting at a particular time and in terms of particular stakeholders’ beliefs [49].

In addition, the evaluation matrix lends support to acceptable theories of emergent leadership that are dependent on group perceptions and beliefs that management affectively mimics organizational culture. Mindful of Robert Merton’s [50] concerns with post factum explanations that lead researchers to create a variety of crude hypotheses to account for their observations, we believe a weighted habitus evaluation matrix would promote a strong program of hypothesis testing. Consequently, our postmodern analytic approach would provide an opportunity to prove or disprove the inferred belief structures that affect emergent leadership and/or group behavior in multidimensional settings, including virtual environments [51; 52; 53; 54].

6   Conclusion

In a global, technologically advanced communications environment, leaders and followers’ interactions are qualitatively different, more complex, and stretch beyond modernist organizational definitions [55; 56]. The guiding principles of Taylorism are far from appropriate in this new global communications era as Marcuse’s (1964) earlier insights regarding the social alienation tied to modernist techno-bureaucratic controls demonstrated. We believe that the hamartia of modernist research literature missed the mark by excusing or ignoring intrapersonal and group complexities arising from biased decision-making patterns that lead to emergent behaviors among participants.

Thus, we proposed a postmodern, hermeneutical model that would investigate emergent leader-follower (or follower-leader) interaction as a consequence of personal biases, intuitive decision-making tools, and the cultural influences found in an organizational milieu [57; 58; 59; 60; 61]. Thus, researchers can dismiss the earlier Star Trek captain as solitary hero, and in his place stands a next generation captain who embraced his subordinates’ individuality (including an android seeking to unwind Hegel’s Self and Other) [62; 63]. This new starship crew and captain as an allegory illustrates a significant change in the simulacra found in contemporary leadership studies. We termed this postmodern leadership phenomenon A Star Trek Affective State in contrast to Taylorist or Enlightenment perspectives where leaders were the heroes and workers, well workers remained victims.

Brocato, Gold et al walden univTable 1 – 4 for Brocato_Gold Management article

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