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The Importance of Non-Sexy Leadership


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At its core leadership involves strategy formulation and steering followers to successfully implement strategy, providing them with resources, monitoring their performance and offering constructive guidance and support.

But this huge, non-sexy, area of leadership is underrepresented in both research and educational programs, say IMD professors Robert Hooijberg and Dan Denison, research associate Nancy Lane, and Professor John Antonakis, in a recent article which introduces the concept of ‘Instrumental Leadership’.

Scanning the business book bestseller lists reveals a similar underrepresentation and a pre-occupation with charismatic leaders and transformational leadership – though Malcolm Gladwell bucks the trend in his recent book ‘Outliers’ when he suggests that Bill Gates became Bill Gates because he was lucky enough to attend a high school that “had access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968.” and had the good fortune to be born in 1955 — the perfect time to take advantage of the personal computer age.

The authors believe that teaching and research on leadership are currently too focused on the transformational leadership which is about the big-picture, setting a vision and being inspirational, and about transactional leadership which concerns using incentives and disincentives to sustain employee performance.

In contrast, instrumental leadership focuses on the nitty-gritty everyday details — first strategic leadership, strategy formulation, implementation and goal setting; and secondly work facilitation, helping followers achieve their goals through clarifying how to get there.

Why is it a problem?

Leaders, including those who set the vision and strategy, often fail to think through or to act effectively to deliver a credible strategy, focused on the ‘big-picture’ they too often have unrealistic visions and make correspondingly poor decisions. Although not as sexy as setting a vision and being charismatic or being a great mentor and motivator, instrumental leadership is essential to ensure vision and strategy have any real meaning. By not paying sufficient attention to instrumental leadership academics and educators are failing future leaders.


Who says so?

Several pieces of research confirm that, “whereas there is a significant relationship between transformational leadership and effectiveness, the effect of instrumental leadership is much more important.”

Professor Amanda Goodall's 2013 article in Developing Leaders extolled the virtue of ‘expert managers’. In a similar vein, research by John Antonakis shows how deep knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a business makes a big difference to leadership effectiveness. Robert Hooijberg and Dan Denison’s organizational culture research, on how well companies translate their vision and strategy into action, also highlights the importance of instrumental leadership.


How to promote instrumental leadership?

Emphasis on transformational and transactional leadership has diverted attention away from instrumental leadership. To rebalance our outlook we should concern ourselves much more with the instrumental leadership — the nitty-gritty of making tough choices, having difficult conversations, holding people accountable, ensuring intra-organizational alignment and following through on vision delivery. Instrumental leaders ensure that their visions are aligned with their choices and to establish processes that are consistent with their vision.

“Developing instrumental leadership requires rolling up your sleeves and making sure that the nuts and bolts are in place. Although this requires experience and dedication, the payoff in terms of effective leadership is worth it.”

IMD is a top-ranked business school, expert in developing leaders, transforming organizations and creating immediate and long-term positive impact.

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