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Does leadership matter? New research says no (and yes)

There's an awful lot of research about leadership out there. Many of these studies have information that can really assist current leaders and up-and-comers focus on the things that really matter. Unfortunately, unless you're a professor or have extra time on your hands, the research will most likely go unread.

So that you don't have to read it, we did. And to follow are brief summaries of some of the key findings of five leadership studies.

1. Perspectives on practice: A new global ethic. Journal of Management Development

Never before in history has our world been so interconnected. The global financial crisis, for example, impacted a wide range of businesses and countries in a matter of hours. The author argues we need to develop a new perspective on leadership. No longer can leaders of global companies look out only for their own employees and their company's bottom line. Rather, leaders need to question how their organization can have a positive and lasting impact on local communities and society at large.

For example, this "new" leader would have never drilled a deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico until they were certain the technology existed to quickly contain an accident. Leaders adopting this new perspective will use their leverage to tackle larger issues, such as equality for women, fair trade, racial harmony, war and access to education. They need to do this because it's the right thing to do, not because it looks good in promotional materials.

2. Examining the effects of leadership development on firm performance. Journal of Leadership Studies

As the title suggests, this study set out to determine whether companies that have leadership development programs actually perform better. Results showed that the more a company focuses on internal leadership growth, the better its sales, profits and profit margins. Additionally, companies that rely on bringing high-quality, innovative products to market (think Apple) must develop leadership at all levels in the organization -- not just the top level. This can improve the speed of decision-making and reduce the time it takes to get a product to market.

3. Organizational change and characteristics of leadership effectiveness. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies

Have you noticed that many change initiatives at your company often fizzle out? In fact, most companies are awful at making change stick: Over half of large change efforts (i.e., changing the culture, restructuring, etc.) completely fail. This research examined just how effective leaders were at leading change and what leadership behaviors were associated with successful change efforts. Unfortunately, leaders are never or rarely effective at leading change 36 percent of the time. Those leaders who are successful at leading change communicate well and are good at motivating others and building teams.

4. Leader cognition: Improving leader performance through causal analysis. The Leadership Quarterly

Today's leaders need to solve incredibly complex problems. Similar to a good doctor, leaders faced with complex problems need to separate the root cause of the problem from the symptoms. Leaders must strive to not only identify but also control these root causes in order to change them. This type of problem solving is called causal analysis. The authors asked the question: Do leaders trained in causal analysis actually improve their performance? The answer turned out to be a resounding "yes:" Leaders trained in causal analysis are more effective. They also feel like the burden of leadership is lightened. Rather than wasting time trying to figure out what, exactly, the problem is, they can quickly identify the root causes of problems, address them and, in doing so, alleviate the symptoms. The researchers also confirmed that when the complexity of a problem goes up, leader performance suffers.

5. Leadership's activation of team cohesion as a strategic asset: an empirical simulation. Journal of Business Strategies

Does leadership matter? This study took that enduring question in a slightly more refined way, asking whether leaders have a direct impact on the performance of their organizations. If you care about leadership development, get ready for the bad news: The study authors found that leadership does not have a direct impact on performance. The good news is that leaders can impact how cohesive their teams are, and a team's cohesion can account for over one quarter of its overall performance. So rather than focusing on "driving results," leaders would be better off finding ways to bring their teams together: providing general support, scheduling productive off-sites, creating interaction between team members, and reminding the team of its shared goals.

There's a lot more leadership research out there -- and we're happy to do this again. Let us read the studies and boil it down for you. So go ahead and send us links to new leadership research or let us know what topics you'd like us to cover.

By Joe Frontiera  |  June 13, 2010; 6:18 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership , Research Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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