What does an effective leader look like?
25 September 2018
By Tina Kiefer
How would you draw an effective leader?
Chances are you are picturing a person, most likely a male, featuring a number of different attributes describing the person’s characteristics, skills, and behaviours.
If this is your image, then you have a lot in common with the majority of UK and North American executives and students that have participated in this exercise over the years – and, not coincidentally, with the mainstream textbook understanding of leadership.
But, your image may be very different. You may have pictured a tree or a ship navigating the high seas or an animal. And maybe, your picture even included followers?
I have collected hundreds of drawings over the past 15 years, with participants representing different cultures, professions and generations.
In this exercise, participants are asked to first reflect on their personal experiences with an effective leader and then to discuss the nature of those leaders in groups.
They are then asked to draw an effective leader that represents the group’s view. The instruction is always the same, but the drawings produced can vary significantly.
Regardless of whether the groups’ drawings correspond with an image of a person or capture an entirely different metaphor, many participants are surprised to learn that their image may not be as unique as they thought.
And participants are equally surprised about how very different those images can be, depending on the cultural or professional composition of the group.
One explanation is that we tend not to be aware of how strongly our assumptions about leadership are rooted in our cultural values. And participants are not always prepared to readily accept other groups’ representations of what effective leaders are.
While the actual attributes are never questioned, participants have taken exception to the underlying message of the purpose of leadership and whom it serves.
Apart from being a playful way to explore an age-old question, what do the drawings tell us?
Asking people to draw an effective leader, rather than produce a list of bullet points, moves people away from textbook answers and taps into their implicit and cultural assumptions, revealing different beliefs and values attached to leadership, beyond the view that has permeated throughout much of the leadership research.
These drawings reveal who and what we believe effective leaders to be, their characteristics and typical behaviours. But for some cultures the drawings also depict how leaders are embedded in their leadership context and the role they play within the organisation and in society.
The drawings above are good examples of how the majority of US/UK drawings show an individual person, often a male, sometimes gender neutral, and only occasionally female (mainly drawn by an all-female group).
The images contain personal characteristics and traits, represented by a range of symbols, such as a heart for passion or caring, ears for being a good listener, muscles for being strong, scales for justice or balance.
While the majority of drawings only show positive characteristics, some acknowledge that leaders may need to be tough and display negative characteristics in order to be effective.
This view corresponds with the mainstream leadership literature, which is dominated by this idea that what makes effective leaders is inherent in the person, regardless of whether we follow a ‘big man’ (or ‘big woman’) theory or a transformational/transactional leadership, person-orientated or task-orientated leadership style approach.
Ultimately, it is about personal attributes of a leader, and it is not surprising that followers rarely feature in those representations.
What catches the eye when comparing drawings from different backgrounds, is not only that some contain followers, while others do not, but the different ways in which followers are portrayed, ranging from subordinates to crucial players.
While we often find similar leader characteristics (passion, vision, etc), the answer to the question ‘what makes an effective leader’ can also (at least partly) be: followers and the way leaders and followers interact in a specific context.
In some drawings it is hard to distinguish between the leaders and followers, with the role of followers seen as much more integral to an effective leader.
Those drawings may emphasise the role of leaders in relation to followers or even depict leaders within a wider societal function.
The group that drew an umbrella, for example, explained how an effective leader also holds a vital function within society and how the organisational and societal functions are entwined, a message that one Western participant in the seminar took very strong offence to.
Moving even further away from the mainstream US/UK view of an effective leader, some drawings, often produced by Far-East Asian groups, do not depict people, but effective leaders as part of a process.
The tree symbolises that the leader is part of an organisational process, with resources from the environment flowing up and down, growing and producing fruit (including a few bad apples).
Drawings from Chinese public sector leaders explained that to understand effective leaders, we needed to understand their journey; from where they were born, how they were raised, their first job, their whole life story is inherent in their leadership.
Cultural representations of effective leaders are not limited to national culture, but tend to include different sub-cultural values and expectations between sectors, different professions, or even within an organisation.
Drawings from public sector participants in various countries demonstrate a more process-focused perspective, illustrating how leaders and followers have to work across boundaries to lead an organisation or department successfully.
But different professional groups within the same organisation also tend to draw different representations of their effective leader - for example support staff, nurses or physicians within a hospital.
Following the thinking of Implicit Leadership Theories, we all hold lay theories of how ideal or real leaders are. Those lay theories, like other lay theories, guide our thinking, actions and decision-making, often without us being aware of it.
For employees this means that on an everyday basis we are more likely to follow or “grant leadership” to those individuals who correspond with our implicit assumptions about effective leaders.
For organisations or HR, it means that through selection, promotion and reward systems, the culturally determined and accepted version of an ideal leader will often sub-consciously be favoured, further establishing and cementing those cultural perceptions and preferences.
The flipside is that those individuals who do not visibly fit local and cultural assumptions, despite being capable of being effective leaders, will have a more difficult time as leaders.
Not only will it be harder for those individuals to be promoted into leadership positions, but once there, also less likely to be granted leadership and to be seen as successful in the role, affecting whether they will climb the ladder, get allocated high-status projects, or get paid equally.
Because those values and assumptions are deeply rooted in society, they tend to continue to shape actions (sometimes even among those of us who pro-actively promote equality and diversity), making it harder for some leaders to succeed in some contexts.
But lay theories can be much subtler than that. Leaders with different styles or characteristics can be seen as effective in one particular culture but ineffective in another.
This may appear obvious, but, while cultural differences are acknowledged in leadership theory and practice - for example in terms of different styles or gender differences - very little of the existing mainstream literature challenges its implicit assumptions.
To do so is important because much of the existing leadership theory and research is driven by a particular cultural view, which re-establishes its own implicit assumptions without being aware of it in writing, training, or HR procedures.
These drawings can open up the debate on not just what makes leaders successful, but more widely what leadership is perceived to be within a certain context. And the answer depends very much on the existing culture and its values.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is famously quoted to have said: “We cannot change what we are unaware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”
Hence, the drawings can help surface our values, beliefs and assumptions that implicitly guide our actions. This can help to break down traditional leader images, and make way for a different, more diverse pool of leaders who may approach the task with a fresh perceptive.
Tina Kiefer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and teaches Leading for Change & Organisational Development on the DBA and Organisational Behaviour on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). She also lectures on Leading and Managing People on the MSc Human Resource Management & Employment Relations plus Changing Organisations on the Undergraduate programme.