Leadership is a Hygiene Factor

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “He governs best who governs least.” I am a lifetime liberal but on this point, I largely agree with the former President and conservative icon. Several years ago, on a commercial flight to somewhere, I was sitting next to a talkative retired aeronautical engineer. In the course of his monologue, he noted that he had been Ronald Reagan’s boss in World War II. They ran a logistic operation for the Army in the western Pacific (Reagan had bad eyes and had received a deferment from combat assignments). I asked him about Reagan’s performance, and he said Reagan was the best natural manager he had ever seen. I then pointed out that, inside the Washington beltway, Reagan was frequently criticized for his “hands off” leadership style, and the engineer snapped, “That’s because he knows what he is doing.” He then pointed out that everyone agreed that Reagan’s transition into the White House had been the smoothest in recorded memory—more so even that of the compulsively organized Navy Nuclear Engineer Jimmy Carter—and this testified to Reagan’s skill as a manager.

I believe the fundamental dynamic in every organization is the individual search for power (those who don’t seek power don’t contribute to the dynamics). This inevitably leads to what Gordon Curphy calls “projects for promotion;” ambitious managers, eager to advance their careers, invent leadership initiatives—not to solve problems but to make a point about their leadership talent. In this way, much energy and sometimes blood and treasure are expended for the sake of someone’s legacy. I think people mostly want to be left alone to do their jobs and live their lives. Leadership is probably relevant in times of crisis and when organizations are confronted with internal or external threats.

Vast amounts of money and effort are spent each year studying, evaluating, and training leadership, which reflects the perceived importance of the topic. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking if all this effort is justified, just to keep the process honest. In extreme and statistically infrequent cases (e.g., corrupt CEOs and heads of state), bad leadership can cause terrible problems for many people. But in the typical case (e.g., a middle manager), is leadership important, and if so, how, and in what ways?

From a conceptual perspective, one can argue that the importance of leadership is overblown. Three considerations support this view. First, in hunter-gatherer societies, which are proxies for the original social organization of humans, there are no leaders. Hunter gatherer groups are utterly democratic, they use distributed decision making, and if one person tries to exert authority over the others, that person will be quickly sanctioned. If he (and it is always a he) persists in trying to rule, he will be terminated. Thus, we evolved in leaderless societies and, in ordinary circumstances, we may find leadership alienating at a deep psychological level.

Second, various researchers estimate that the base rate of incompetent management in corporate America (and no doubt around the world) is 65% to 75%. Based on these numbers, if leadership were truly important, most organizations should fail; the fact that they don’t fail suggests that factors other than leadership explain their performance. Third, anyone who has conducted job analyses in organizations, or worked in one, knows that employees expend a lot of effort trying to avoid their managers. I once interviewed the star salesman for a very large logistics firm. In dismay, he confided to me that he hated it when his sales manager came around. As he put it, “I can’t wait for him to leave so that I can get back to making money for the company and for me.”

The case for minimal leadership is even stronger from an empirical perspective. Pragmatic considerations suggest that I/O psychology should focus on business unit performance. Specifically, priority should be assigned to those factors that will have the largest impact on team effectiveness and ultimately the fabled bottom line. The research literature suggests that leadership style impacts staff morale, and that staff morale then predicts business unit performance, so the effects of leadership on organizational performance are mediated by staff morale. Leadership style reliably correlates about .30 with staff morale. However, staff members’ own scores on Big Five measures of Adjustment or Core Self Evaluations correlate above .50 with staff morale. This suggests that although leadership style affects staff morale, it is not the most important determinant of morale. The conclusion seems straightforward: the best way to enhance staff morale, and therefore business unit performance, is to hire staff with high scores for Adjustment or Core Self Evaluations. Leadership is a secondary consideration.

In Herzberg’s (1966) pioneering study of the determinants of employee motivation, he concluded that it is important to distinguish between motivator factors and hygiene factors. Motivator factors actually improve performance. Hygiene factors only serve to demotivate people. Removing hygiene factors removes sources of dissatisfaction, but removing them does not actually enhance performance. The data suggest that leadership is a hygiene factor—bad leadership alienates employees, whereas good leadership doesn’t improve performance, it just doesn’t impede it. Consequently, leadership interventions should focus on weeding out the bad ones and worry less about the characteristics of good ones.