Research on Leadership Selection and Training: One View of the Future

By Fiedler, Fred E. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Research on Leadership Selection and Training: One View of the Future


Fiedler, Fred E., Administrative Science Quarterly


I am very honored to help celebrate ASQ's distinguished 40-year history and by the invitation to reflect on what we have accomplished in that time, as well as to speculate on what the future is likely to require. Since I got hooked on leadership research very early in my career and have stuck with it for over 45 years, I will leave other aspects of the organizational world to my better qualified colleagues. My reasons for concentrating on leadership training and managerial selection are in part based on a recent survey of 269 industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists by Schippman, Higgs, and Matthews (1995), who found that the respondents saw workshops on these two topics as especially important in furthering their future careers.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED ABOUT LEADERSHIP?

There has been much moaning and groaning in the past that we didn't know anything worthwhile about leadership, that leadership theories and research lacked focus and were chaotic, and some writers asked even whether there is such a thing as leadership. This may be a good attention getter, but more sober reflection tells us that leadership does make a difference. Historical examples abound in which brilliant military leaders have won battles against superior forces, and managers have turned failing organizations around. An example of the former is George Washington's victory over the better-equipped and professionally trained English forces in the Revolutionary War. An example from business is the remarkable recovery of the Chrysler Corporation under Lee lacocca. Another example of the leader's effect on performance comes from Thorlindsson's (1987) study of over 200 nearly identical ships in the Icelandic herring-fishing fleet. These ships, usually with an 11-man crew, compete for the herring catch under identical conditions. Thorlindsson found that the captains in charge of these vessels accounted for 35 to 49 percent in the variation of the catch over a three-year period. Since the effectiveness of the leader has frequently determined the survival or demise of a group, organization, or an entire nation, it has been of concern to some of the foremost thinkers in history, like Plato, Machiavelli, or von Clausewitz. If leadership were easy to understand, we would have had all the answers long before now.

Leadership research before 1945 was primarily concerned with identifying traits, behaviors, and personality patterns that would differentiate leaders from non-leaders. We do know a good deal more about leadership today than we did 40 years ago, but without doubt, we still have a lot to learn. First, Let us ask what we know about Leadership at this time. A recently published paper (Fiedler and House, 1994) listed what we considered to be among the important advances in our knowledge of leadership. This list, with some modifications, is shown below. I will define leadership as that part of management that involves the supervision of others and use the terms interchangeably in this paper.

1. Emergent leadership. There is no evidence for a specific leadership trait, behavior, or a leader personality. Group members who are "visible" and have abilities, skills, or resources that would assist the group in reaching its goal are likely to be chosen or accepted as leaders. People who are seen as good leaders are also seen as good followers.

2. Leader effectiveness, the ability to get a group to accomplish its mission, depends not just on the leader's abilities and attributes but also on how well the leader's personality, abilities, and behaviors match the situation in which the leader operates. Carefully conducted research on assessment centers has been reasonably accurate in identifying those who later become successful managers. But these results cannot be generalized easily because the methodology of assessment centers is not standardized and uniform, and there are wide variations in the sensitivity, skills, and competence of the assessors. …

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