Monday morning, 16th September. I could not be more excited about the week ahead. The International Centre for Leadership and Followership is set to host the world experts on implicit leadership theories at Durham University Business School. For five days, we will be discussing the everyday theories people have about leaders’ traits and behaviours and how those theories might influence processes in organisations. My colleagues, Robert Lord, Rosalie Hall and I have worked hard to achieve this and we had a lot of support from the school. Now, it is time to deliver on the trust the school put in us.
Day one: Once introductions have been made, the conversation turns to what everyone is working on at the moment and what they expect to get out of the event. Thomas Sy, University of California, has used videogames in his studies. We have been thinking of doing something similar to get people to “learn” leadership and make better decisions when judging leaders. Susan Murphy, University of Edinburgh, is looking at leader self-identity and self-efficacy. Great, since we are doing a study in Durham (in conjunction with the University of Warwick) about motivation to lead in management accountants. Clearly, Susan and I need to talk. Stefanie Johnson’s research, from the University of Colarado Denver, into gender and implicit leadership theories fits perfectly in this discussion- If leaders’ self-images influence their leadership and whether or not people take up a leadership position in the first place (a decision which might not be independent of gender) we need to find out if these images are stable or can we change them. Clearly, Tiffany Hansbrough Keller, from Farleigh Dickinson University, argues, that means that we need to know how implicit leadership theories develop in the first place. And, as Robert Lord points out, the use of implicit leadership theories might depend on emotions that people feel at the time when they meet a “leader”. Sometimes, we are more, at other times, less inclined to stereotype others based on the simple knowledge that they hold a leadership position.
Day two: It is time to talk about methods. Jessica Dinh (University of Akron), Stefanie Johnson (University of Colarado Denver)and Roseanne Foti (Virginia Tech University) tell us about new and different ways of getting hold of people’s implicit leadership theories. Sometimes, a questionnaire is not enough. Durham University Business School has recently opened an experimental lab, and that’s where we are heading in the afternoon. I show my colleagues around and tell them about the things we can do in the lab. The facilities allow assessing people’s eye movements when they are looking at a screen. We can also measure physiology. So, we can find out when people are stressed at work and if that has something to do with their leaders. And the observation suite allows for leadership situations to be enacted in a controlled setting.
Day three: Presentation day. Thomas Sy, University of California, tells us about his research into followership. He uses art to (subconsciously) influence people to think more positive about followers. If his theories are confirmed, this might make a very useful HR tool that does not cost the earth (depending on the artist, of course). Susan Murphy, University of Edinburgh, explains how self and other implicit leadership theories can be used in the context of leader development. Knowing about how (potential) leaders see themselves fitting into a leadership role, can give important pointers for leadership development. This is exciting as so much prior research has been descriptive, so we do not know much yet about how we can influence implicit leadership theories and use them to help leaders and followers to positively shape leadership processes.
Day four and five: Now it is time for group discussions. Where do we go from here? What do we do with all this knowledge? We are sitting together in groups and think of new projects. How do implicit leadership theories change and develop? What role do emotions play? Can we help people to take on leadership roles more readily? Can we improve how people view followers?
At the end of day five: Everybody is smiling. We all feel we have made a huge step towards a better understanding of implicit leadership theories to use them to help organisation and leaders and followers to improve the process that leadership is. This goes way beyond the usual focus on leaders and acknowledges that leadership is a process that depends on everyone who is involved in it. Knowledge about implicit leadership theories of leaders and followers can help HR directors improve leadership (as opposed to leader) development.