Are we witnessing a shift towards leadership, at the detriment of management?

Love makes you blind and so does leadership, says Hannes Leroy, whose research exposes a natural and automatic preference for leaders at the expense of managers, in the recruitment process

The term ‘management’ comes up a lot in the world of business education. Whether it’s the umbrella term we use to incorporate most organisational studies, or the key word within the titles of most top journals we share our work with, the word management has traditionally always been a prevalent theme within the business world.

That being said, in recent years we have witnessed a sharp divergence away from ‘management’ towards a new buzzword: Leadership. When in the past we would have rewarded ‘strong managerial skills’, now we place a strong value on leadership. This is true in academia, as well as business, with nine of the 2017 Top Graduate Business Schools in the US incorporating the notion of ‘leadership’ into their mission statements. Meanwhile, only two mentioned the word ‘management’. So, are we witnessing a shift towards leadership, at the detriment of management?

Leadership, an executive’s ability to inspire, motivate and, crucially, develop others, has always been a rather attractive quality in an applicant for job. It’s true, when it comes to filling a vacancy, particularly when that opening is for a senior position, decision makers have always tended to gravitate towards candidates that possess – or at least claim to possess – leadership qualities. This has often been at the expense of candidates who we could consider to be ‘managers’, whose expertise, such as budgeting, hiring and supervising, are considered less attractive than that of leaders, despite being equally as important.

There is no doubt that there are significant benefits for organisations who hire candidates that possess leadership skills and experience. However, this irrational preference for leaders at the expense of managers, rooted in a romanticised view of leadership, could come at a high cost if decision makers fail to appreciate the value of management in certain situations, leading them to hire the wrong candidates.

Despite popular writers on the subject of leadership and management having historically worked to distinguish the two concepts, many still make the mistake of seeking out and recruiting individuals who have strong leadership skills but lack management expertise for roles that really require managers. Becoming increasingly aware of this overwhelming, yet unproven, preference for leadership over management I, alongside my colleagues Assistant Professor Kevin Kniffin and Professor James Detert, undertook three sets of studies seeking to understand this bias.

The overlap between leadership and management

Within the first study, we looked to ascertain if there was an overlap between leadership and management by looking to outline any similarities or significant differences between the two. This was done by surveying what respondents associated with the terms ‘Leader’ and ‘Manager’, as well as ‘Leading’ and ‘Managing’. After that, we wanted to verify whether the activities and characteristics of leaders were actually considered more attractive, and therefore valued higher than that of managers, even if the circumstances presented to the respondents reflected an overriding preference for managerial skills. Finally, we wanted to determine whether slowing down the decision makers’ responses would temper the innate preference recruiters have for leaders.

In undertaking this study, we surveyed the responses of 703 people. Our research found both similarities and differences in what people consider to be the prototypical leader and manager. In spite of the existence of perceived differences – which would put to bed the misconception that management is part of a wider category known as ‘leadership’, and would therefore present it in its own right, which should encourage greater research into understanding the value of management within organisations – management continues to be undervalued within organisational theory. Furthermore, our second study confirmed the assertion that there is in fact an overwhelming preference for leadership, with the qualities and characteristics of leaders being valued higher than that of managers, irrespective of whether the situation would benefit from those qualities or not. That being said, the final study revealed that if decision makers were to slow down and consider their responses, their natural preference for leadership would subside.

A natural preference for leaders 

From our research we can see that there is undoubtedly a natural and automatic preference for leaders at the expense of managers, with our study having taken place across multiple countries, different levels and a variety of professions. What’s more, this romanticised view of leadership overrides employers’ decisions, meaning that little to no thought is given to the situation in which the successful candidate would be working in. This kind of preference is to be expected if we take into account the prevalence of pro-leadership rhetoric within society: leaders, or leadership more broadly, is exulted by the media and, increasingly, by academia (as demonstrated in the introduction). Meanwhile, managers and management is denounced as little more than paper-pushing, dead weight. So, why would the business world have a different view?  

Nonetheless, this innate preference can and will be immensely costly to organisations who hire the wrong candidates to fill their vacancies. However, what our research also revealed is that this natural attraction to leadership is an immediate response, and so if decision makers were to prolong the deciding process, they would be able to temper their preference for leadership, and would be more likely to choose the managerial skills.

It was within our final study that we used time-pressure to assess whether the speed of the decision making process would impact the outcome. Being forced to make quick decisions, with less time to consider the all of the conditions of the situation, and therefore having to ‘go with their gut’, we can clearly see the danger that is posed by leaving important organisational decisions involving job candidates down to the natural inclinations of decision makers. Therefore, when assessing candidates for top level positions it is key that these decision makers are aware of the instinctive preference people have for leader-related terms, in contrast to manager-related terms, and so need to decelerate the selection process in order to overcome this bias. Moreover, selection committees would do well to narrow down the vital skills required for the vacancy and consciously work to avoid being swayed by leadership terms candidates use to describe their skills and experiences.

We should be encouraging employers to be aware of, and steer away from, biases against managers in the same way that we expect decision makers to guard against sexist or racist biases. However, expecting people to self-regulate is a challenging task, and so we should be encouraging the use of strict, yet basic, decision-making principles for filling senior vacancies. As well as this, selection committees should be made up of a variety of decision makers, who have a natural tendency to favour leaders, and managers.

In short – in order to tackle a systematic bias in the hiring process, we need to make systematic changes.

Dr Hannes Leroy is an Associate Professor at the Department of Organisation and Personnel Management, Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University

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