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Leadership Behaviors and Their Ethical Implications

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

In a separate article, I discussed some of the early leadership research that attempted to identify qualities that were always associated with effective leaders. Those efforts were largely unsuccessful. As a result, researchers subsequently turned their focus to the types of behaviors that leaders exhibit, hoping that this work might reveal some patterns of successful perspectives, habits and routines.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

These studies were conducted at some of the finest universities across the country, and while there were some very general similarities in the results of many of the major studies, the implications varied from case to case. In this article, we’ll look at each of these studies and what their results suggest about leadership efficacy and leadership ethics.

One brief preface is helpful here. The studies discussed in this article obviously varied in their research parameters, methodology and findings. However, one factor that was fairly consistent throughout was the way in which leadership efficacy was defined.

Generally, the studies discussed in this article looked at leadership effectiveness with respect to two metrics. The first was performance, or the productivity of followers in terms of the work they do — in terms of both quality and quantity.

The second was satisfaction, or the degree to which teams were happy performing work under their respective leaders. This is not an uncommon way of measuring efficacy, and these factors are also somewhat codependent.

Followers must be able to produce at an acceptable level. But if they’re not also satisfied with their circumstances, then they aren’t likely to sustain performance for any extended period of time.

Research Studies into Leadership Behavior

Over the years, there have been multiple research studies into leadership behavior conducted by different organizations. These studies include:

1. University of Iowa studies. One set of studies was conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa. The results of these studies concluded that all leaders adopted one of three different leadership styles: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire.

Autocratic leaders run their operations like dictators, making decisions unilaterally and seeking very little input or participation from followers. Democratic leaders, by contrast, adopt a very participative style of leadership, involving followers in all major decisions, either through a “notice and comment” style dialogue before decisions are rendered or through an informal voting-style procedure.

Finally, “Laissez-Faire” is a French term that literally means to “let do” or to “let be.” It is commonly used in the phrase “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” to describe the American-style economy where government seldom meddles in private-sector affairs and generally leaves business and industry alone.

Accordingly, Laissez-Faire leaders are those who are very “hands off” and do not typically involve themselves in the affairs of their teams unless absolutely necessary. According to the University of Iowa studies, Democratic leaders were most likely to render high levels of both performance and satisfaction.

2. University of Ohio studies. Another set of studies was conducted by researchers at the University of Ohio. Instead of looking to classify leadership styles in terms of the Iowa taxonomy, these scholars measured leaders on two dimensions.

The first was “initiating structure,” or the ability of a leader to define roles and work within a group. The second was “consideration,” or the leader’s ability to foster trust and respect among members of a group.

The Ohio Studies generally indicated that leaders who were most effective – those who generated positive levels of both performance and satisfaction — were very adept with both initiating structure and consideration. In other words, both structure and consideration were necessary to allow a company and its employees to excel.

However, the authors of these studies did note that situational factors had a significant influence on outcomes; this is a point that I’ve made in other articles about ethics and efficacy.

3. University of Michigan studies. Yet another set of studies came out of the University of Michigan. In Michigan, researchers found a similar dichotomy of leadership abilities as were found in Ohio.

The Michigan studies referred to the first dimension as “production-orientation,” or the extent to which leaders display a focus on task accomplishment. The second dimension was called “employee-orientation,” or the extent to which leaders focus on nurturing personal relationships with followers.

There are obvious similarities with respect to the Ohio and Michigan studies in terms of the dimensions that were evaluated, but what was less similar between the two were the ultimate conclusions. While Ohio researchers concluded that leaders who were highly talented in both dimensions were best at driving performance and satisfaction, the Michigan studies reported that leaders who were employee-focused and determined to build strong relationships with followers were most likely to achieve high levels of performance and satisfaction. In Michigan, the quality of “production-orientation” was less consequential insofar as leadership efficacy was concerned.

4. The Blake & Mouton Managerial Grid. One final variety of the two-dimension “job versus people” framework came in the form of the Managerial Grid by Blake & Mouton. These authors took the two dimensions previously established in the Ohio and Michigan studies — which they relabeled “concern for production” and “concern for people” — and plotted them on a 9-point X/Y axis to illustrate the implications of leaders who were either low in both, high in both, or higher in one than the other.

The authors then plotted five points on this grid. Leaders who lack both dimensions (1,1) are described as “impoverished” and are predicted by the grid to fail in achieving performance or satisfaction. Leaders who are high in task concern but low in people concern (9,1) are called “task” managers and are predicted to achieve performance at the expense of satisfaction.

Inversely, leaders who are low in task concern but high in people concern (1,9), are called “country club” managers. Under these leaders, relationships and satisfaction are strong, but performance suffers.

Then, there are leaders who exhibit moderate levels of both task and people concern (5,5). These are called “middle-of-the-road” managers. Generally, performance and satisfaction under these leaders are both acceptable, but they do not lead to excellence.

Finally, leaders who excel at both task and people concern (9,9) are called “team” managers; the Blake and Mouton grid predicts these leaders will have the highest levels of both performance and satisfaction. In this sense, the authors of the Managerial Grid agree with the findings of the Ohio Studies; it takes a focus on both the job and the people in order to maximize results.

What Did These Studies Have to Say about Leadership Ethics?

Although these various behavioral leadership theories make significant implications about the types of leaders which will be most successful, these studies also raise questions about the ethics of leaders based on their leadership philosophies:

1. University of Iowa studies. The Iowa studies say quite a bit about leaders with different dispositions concerning their own roles. Autocratic leaders may be effective, but if their conduct results in low employee morale and low levels of perceived respect or appreciation, then some ethics doctrines would suggest that this is an unethical approach.

Democratic leaders may benefit from the good favor of employees who appreciate being included in team affairs, but what if such elaborate participatory situations stall the business to the point of threatening viability? Would it still be wise to afford employees a voice in everything if it means certain bankruptcy?

Finally, do Laissez-Faire leaders shirk a duty of oversight and effort when they abstain from involvement in group affairs? If so, does this shortcoming render such leaders unethical? As usual, these are difficult questions with no easy answers.

2. University of Ohio Studies, University of Michigan Studies, and the Blake & Mouton Managerial Grid. When considering the ethics of the theories from Ohio and Michigan and the authors of the Managerial Grid, one must address the question of whether leaders who focus on the people they lead are any more or less ethical than those who focus on the job to be accomplished. If morality is indeed about promoting the well-being of others as I have suggested in a separate article, then the intuitive answer might be that leaders who focus more on people are more ethical.

Again, things are rarely this simple. As we’ve discussed, there are cases in which a focus on the job may actually render more benefit to followers than appeasing followers’ shortsighted desires. What people want is not always what they need, and so leaders must confront the difficult task of doing that which is best and not necessarily that which is most popular.

The implications of the behavioral theories discussed in this article are limited by their applicability to different circumstances. As always, each situation warrants its own assessment in determining the best approach. But by studying research like this, leaders expand the tool kit that they use to make effective and ethical decisions in the future.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. 

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