Effective Leadership in the Modern Age: New Insights from Research
What is effective leadership? The effective leader was once seen as the undisputed, dominant authority who understood everything and made every decision. But our view of what constitutes effective and acceptable leadership has transformed significantly over the years. Ancient beliefs about leadership were heavily based on dogmas and intuitions. But we can no longer rely solely on our intuitions when it comes to determining leadership quality. Empirical research has proven its necessity in discovering what really works in leadership. Psychological science offers indispensable methods and crucial insights. In this article, I dive deeper into some of these studies, which illustrate how empirical science has fundamentally changed our view of leadership.
1. Helping is more effectively than dominating
Leadership and hierarchy are inherent in organizations of reasonable size. It could be that dominant leadership in crisis situations offers some advantages by being able to mobilize people.
But dominant behavior can also undermine employees' willingness to help, according to recent research by Kakkar & Sivanathan (2021). They found that by putting their own self-interest above that of others, dominant leaders can induce a zero-sum mentality in employees, which leads to a reduced willingness to help colleagues. Their series of eight studies, with 147,780 observations, showed that dominance indeed promotes this everyone-for-himself mentality and reduces willingness to help.
However, leadership behavior can also have the opposite effect and enhance mutual help among employees. This is shown by research by Zhang et al. (2020). They found that the helping behavior of leaders stimulates mutual help among employees, which in turn contributes to their well-being at work. This shows that by being helpful themselves, leaders can foster an environment that is both task- and people-oriented. These studies refute the old image of the effective leader as a dominant figure and emphasize the modern view of the leader as a wise, subservient person.
2. Effective leaders are ethical and humble
The research field of the psychology of wisdom (Visser, 2021) suggests that effective leaders are not necessarily dominant and selfish. On the contrary, recent studies show that ethics and humility, core components of wisdom, are linked to leadership effectiveness.
Ethical leadership, defined as normatively appropriate behavior intended to drive followers' ethical behavior, correlates with positive employee performance. Research by Lee et al. (2019) shows that ethical leadership is associated with organizational commitment, job performance, and employee retention, leading to improved functioning.
Humble leadership, characterized by self-awareness, appreciation for others, the ability to learn and openness to new ideas, also positively impacts employee performance. Studies show that humble leadership leads to greater employee engagement, satisfaction, better relationships, psychological safety, and creativity (Owens et al., 2013; Basford et al., 2014; Qin et al., 2014; Hu et al., 2018). Cho et al. (2020) suggest that humble leadership also promotes employee comfort and engagement.
Oc et al. (2019) found that employees of humble leaders felt less vulnerable, were able to be more authentic, and reported improved well-being and performance outcomes. This suggests that wisdom in leadership, characterized by ethics and humility, can play a key role in effective leadership.
3. Effective leaders support the process of employees to create their own motivation
Humans are inherently motivated to explore and contribute to their environment. However, if they are treated as beings without motivation, it may provoke resistance. A study by Bailey & Madden (2016) examined the experiences of 135 employees in different professions and found that meaningful work was often not directly linked to good leadership. Instead, poor leadership was found to undermine meaningful work, especially when it conflicted with personal values, ignored personal judgments, or interfered with supportive relationships.
The role of leadership should therefore not be to create motivation, but to support employees in their own search for meaning and motivation. Leaders must take seriously and use the interests, values, perceptions, judgments, and relationships of their employees. They can also help employees self-motivate by promoting reflection on the job and organizational goals. When a leader assigns a task, it is important to clearly explain the reasons for the task so that employees can understand its importance and align it with their own values.
4. Autonomy support works better than coercion
The traditional view of motivation sees people as homo economicus: lazy, opportunistic, and selfish. This view states that external pressure and control are necessary to push people into action. However, contemporary scientific insights show that this view is outdated. Under the right circumstances, someone can choose to commit themselves enthusiastically and feel happy doing so.
Self-determination theory (SDT) is the most influential theory of motivation in psychology today. SDT distinguishes between controlled motivation (action under pressure) and autonomous motivation (action enjoying the activity and/or seeing its value). SDT predicts that employees will be autonomously motivated if their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are supported in their work.
A meta-analysis by Slemp et al. (2018) investigated the relationship between autonomy-supportive leadership and various outcomes among employees. The results were in line with predictions: autonomy-supportive leadership was associated with the fulfillment of basic psychological needs, autonomous motivation, general well-being, less stress, work engagement, job satisfaction, and positive work behavior.
Specific expectations about the chain of psychological processes stated that autonomy-supportive leadership would lead first to the fulfillment of basic needs, then to good motivation, and then to other positive outcomes. Correlational studies and path analyses confirmed these predictions but did not identify significant moderators that could alter the relationship between autonomy support and the outcome variables.
Because this research was based on correlational studies, no conclusions can be drawn about causality. We cannot say that autonomy-supportive leadership causes the positive effects. Nevertheless, the results are encouraging and support further experimental research on the effects of autonomy-supportive leadership.
5. Autonomy-supporting executives have authority
Autonomy support is sometimes misunderstood as complete freedom for employees. However, it goes hand in hand with providing structure, such as clear goals and competent feedback. Without structure, autonomous motivation becomes difficult. Therefore, the most effective leaders support both autonomy and structure.
What may sound counterintuitive is that autonomy-supportive leaders do not have less authority. When employees view leaders as legitimate, they accept their authority. According to the Relational Model of Authority, this legitimacy arises from interactions between leaders and employees, with trustworthiness and neutrality as important factors.
Research by Kanat-Maymon et al. (2018) confirms this. In their first study with 192 employees, they showed that perceived legitimacy mediated the relationship between autonomy support and job satisfaction and engagement, as well as the negative relationship between autonomy support and burnout.
In a second study with 314 employees, autonomy support was found to be positively related to positive work outcomes and negatively related to negative outcomes. These relationships were mediated by perceived legitimacy. There was also a surprising, slight positive correlation between controlled steering and job satisfaction.
The findings suggest that autonomy support improves not only employee motivation and performance, but also acceptance of leadership authority. This makes sense, as employees are likely to accept the authority of a leader that contributes to their sense of autonomy, competence, and belonging, and empowers them to do meaningful work.
6. Effective leaders believe that people can develop their capabilities
Effective leaders display a growth mindset, the belief that capabilities are developable. Heslin et al. (2005) showed that growth mindset training makes leaders more effective: they are more open to feedback, become better at problem solving, and pay more attention to the growth and guidance of employees.
Leaders with a growth mindset are perceived by employees as procedurally fair, which promotes commitment to the organization. In contrast, leaders with a fixed mindset are seen as less righteous (Heslin & VandeWalle, 2009).
Research by Wood et al. (2002) showed that managers' mindsets influence team belonging and performance. Under the pressure of increasing challenges, managers with a growth mindset performed better and maintained their confidence, while managers with a fixed mindset underperformed and lost their confidence.
The mindset culture of an organization is also important: organizations with a growth mindset culture stimulate well-being, creativity, and involvement, while in organizations with a fixed mindset culture, employees feel less involved, accepted, and supported (Murphy & Dweck, 2010). Leaders with a growth mindset can foster this culture, where they better support and notice progress in employees, and are perceived as more honest by employees (Heslin & Keating, 2017). In short, a growth mindset in leaders has positive effects on both their effectiveness and the perception and performance of their teams.
7. Effective leaders focus on meaningful progress
Effective leaders have a belief in the growth and development of individuals and the organization. A study by Amabile and Kramer (2011) revealed that meaningful progress, i.e., progress in meaningful work, catalysts (elements that promote progress, such as clear goals and autonomy) and nurturing events (interpersonal events that stimulate, such as respect and encouragement) are crucial to the motivation and performance of employees. It is striking that even small progress can have a significant impact. At the same time, negative factors, such as deterioration, inhibitors, and 'toxins', have a significantly greater negative effect than the positive effect of the positive factors. This research is in line with other studies. For example, Klug & Maier (2015) showed that successful goal pursuit, defined as progress, correlates with subjective well-being.
These studies suggest that leaders should focus on past progress as well as future progress, set clear goals, discuss goal significance, and minimize negativity. In this way, they promote the development of their team and the organization as a whole.
In a world that is changing rapidly and becoming more complex, the old image of the dominant leader has disappeared. Now we see leaders who offer help, behave ethically, and are humble. They put pressure aside and believe in the growth of their team members. These leaders still have authority, but of a different kind. It is an authority based on legitimacy and mutual respect.
They understand that leadership is not about control and coercion, but about the growth and well-being of their people. They appreciate the power of self-motivation and create an environment in which their team members can grow.
It is clear that leadership research will become increasingly important in the future. This research keeps us sharp. It challenges us to rethink our assumptions and learn what makes leadership truly effective.
We must keep learning and adapting. In doing so, we not only improve our leadership style, but also our organizations. And in the end, we make our whole society better.