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Leadership and Team Performance
By Gordy Curphy and Robert Hogan

As the readers of HBR will know, leadership is the most frequently discussed topic in the management sciences. The leadership literature is so extensive as to be overwhelming, but as of this writing, there is no consensus regarding how to define leadership. Moreover, some writers even argue that leadership is a myth, that leaders are irrelevant, that they are products of the systems in which they operate, and that their performance is determined by forces outside their control. 

Evidence has accumulated since the 1990s that supports two broad conclusions. First, personality is related to leadership—certain measurable personality characteristics reliably predict rated performance in leadership positions. Second, leadership style predicts team, unit, or organizational performance—which means that leadership is a consequential phenomenon, who is in charge actually matters in terms of organizational performance.

The way leadership is defined and evaluated in standard treatments seems to vary.  Sometimes it is defined simply in terms of who is in charge—e.g., George Bush is the leader of the United States Government. Academics usually evaluate leadership using ratings of a person’s performance, and it is usually a person’s boss who does the rating. In all these cases, however, leadership is defined and evaluated in an individualistic way, in terms of the characteristics and performance of single individuals and the leadership literature overwhelmingly focuses on individual careers. In our view, this is a mistake and probably the major source of the confusion that exists in the literature.

We prefer to think about leadership from a group perspective. Evolutionary theory tells us people evolved as group living animals. History and practical observation tell us that people always live in groups, and that these groups are often, if not constantly, in competition. This means that the welfare of individuals depends on how well their groups actually fare in competition with other groups. And this offers a clue regarding how to define and evaluate leadership.

In our view, leadership is a resource for group performance. People are inherently selfish, but the success of the groups with which they are associated depends on within group cooperation. Leadership involves persuading people to pull together to support a common effort vis a vis the other groups with which they compete. This is as true for war lords in Afghanistan as it is for coaches of athletic teams. Thus, we argue that leadership should be defined in terms of the ability to build a high performing team, and leadership should be evaluated in terms of the performance of the team. Although this seems perfectly commonsensical, leadership scholars rarely take this perspective.

Personality can be defined in terms of two broad themes which consistently emerge from statistical studies of trait ratings. These themes are often called “Agency and Communion”, but we prefer the terms “Getting Along and Getting Ahead”. These themes reflect the facts that people always live in groups, and that every group has a status hierarchy. These two well supported generalizations about human groups suggest that two big problems in life concern getting along with other people while acquiring as much status as possible. The themes are biologically mandated:  people with no social support or status have difficult lives, whereas popular, high status people thrive and so do their children—on average.

All generalizations about people need to be qualified in terms of individual differences. Thus some people are reclusive, anti-social, and don’t care about social acceptance, whereas others care desperately about social acceptance and approval—and there are lots of people in between. Similarly, some people have no interest in worldly success, whereas others are driven to seek success—and there are lots of people in between. People who want to get along spend their time building and maintaining relationships, and developing elaborate social networks. People who want to get ahead tend to be focused, achievement-oriented, and persistent. It is also important to note that individual differences in the desires to get along and get ahead can be measured with some reliability using well-validated psychometric instruments.

Getting along and getting ahead exist in a state of tension. To get along requires ingratiation and subordinating one’s wishes to those of others; to get ahead means outperforming others, which will inevitably annoy them. Great skill is required to balance these two tendencies productively. Not surprisingly, the ability to do this is not widespread in any population.

It is also important to note that these themes are statistically independent, so that people’s scores on these two personality dimensions are free to vary. This results in a simple two by two table of personality types as seen in Figure One. People with low scores on both dimensions (Feckless) are grumpy and irritable but with no career agenda.  People with high scores for getting along and low scores for getting ahead (Empty Suits) are charming and likeable but with no serious career agenda. People with low scores for getting along and high scores for getting ahead (Bullies) are hard-charging and results-oriented, but they trample subordinates and colleagues in an effort to reach their goals. People with high scores on both dimensions (Potential Leaders) are socially skilled and strategic about their careers; they know how to balance the competing demands of getting along and getting ahead, and this serves them well.

People with high scores for getting along know how to build and maintain relationships, construct social networks—in short, they are able to bring people together as a team. People with high scores for getting ahead know how to get results and drive projects to a conclusion. Personality predicts leadership performance—because who you are determines how you lead. And leadership performance concerns building a team.  Figure Two show the consequences of these two approaches to leadership for team performance.

Leaders with low scores for getting along and getting ahead don’t know how to build teams or to get things done. As a result, they create dysfunctional teams, characterized by low morale and no sense of purpose or direction.

Leaders with high scores for getting along and low scores for getting ahead know how to build teams but don’t know how to get things done. As a result, they create teams with high morale and low performance—belonging to the team becomes an end in itself.

Leaders with low scores for getting along and high scores for getting ahead don’t know how to build teams but do know how to get things done. As a result, they create teams that are moderately effective, but which have low morale and high rates of defection.

Leaders with high scores for getting along and for getting things done create high performing teams, teams characterized by good morale and a sense of purpose.

Several implications of Figure Two are worth pointing out. First, and most obviously Figure Two suggests that the personality of the team leader will directly influence the tone and climate of a team. Second, the tone and climate of a team will predict the performance of the team. Third, on average teams perform in a less than optimal fashion. But most importantly, these processes are systematic. There is a clear and inexorably logic associated with the links between personality, leadership style, and team performance. Organizations that ignore this body of research create severe and unnecessary inefficiencies for themselves.

Figure 1: Personality Typology

Figure 2: A Typology of Teams

Gordy Curphy, Ph.D.
President, Curphy Consulting Corporation
1978 Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy
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