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A closer look at understanding and improving the behaviour of leaders

Effective and ethical leadership becomes even more relevant in a global pandemic, during which human life seems to be directly weighted against economic disaster. To find solutions, leadership on all levels of society must be involved.

Society

Effective, ethical and value-oriented leadership are fundamental to societal success in a multitude of contexts, be it in the corporate world, the military or politics. Skilful leadership can reduce conflict, unite followers, and see societies and organisations flourish. Negative forms of leadership can have devastating consequences. The EU-funded LEADERPROFILE project provided a comprehensive overview of the current status quo of research on negative forms of leadership and their antecedents and consequences. Undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, the project took a first step towards the laboratory-based experimental study of leadership, which in the long run will provide crucial pieces of evidence for working on effective and sustainable interventions to support leaders in their daily jobs.

Examining leadership behaviour in laboratory settings

“Now more than ever, we need to foster inclusive, innovative and reflective societies. Our societies, however, can only be as reflective as their leaders,” says Franziska Emmerling, head of the Neurophysiological Leadership Lab at the Technical University of Munich and LEADERPROFILE coordinator. Claudia Peus, professor of Research and Science Management also at the University and LEADERPROFILE project supervisor, adds: “European leaders are under considerable strain, considering fast changes rooted in globalisation, migration, the economic crisis and digitalisation.” In this context, leaders need support in developing sound self-reflection skills. To be effective and sustainable, any endeavour to support leaders has to be rooted in sound scientific evidence. Emmerling suggests that future leadership research “needs to implement a multi-methodological approach reaching beyond questionnaire-based studies and include experimental laboratory studies.” The main focus of LEADERPROFILE was, thus, to develop experimental set-ups in which to study leadership. Leadership is not only based on a leader’s actions but emerges (as effective or ineffective) from followers’ perceptions of and reactions to these actions. LEADERPROFILE investigated how the perception of a leader is formed and how various leadership behaviours affect this perception. To do this, it followed an experimental approach and addressed cognitive and psychophysiological aspects on the part of followers. A series of studies identified implicit and explicit cognition as significant factors affecting followers’ perceptions of leader effectiveness.

Novel technologies for leadership research

To further extend the classic experimental research approach, the team included novel technologies, namely social robotics, into their laboratory studies of leadership. “Recent technological advancements have put social robotics on the map of researchers. Their increasing social capabilities and functions have created amplified potential for use in highly complex domains,” notes Emmerling. As research shows that humans can trust and cooperate with robots, LEADERPROFILE investigated how followers perceive and react to robot leaders showing various leadership styles. Destructive leadership has direct, global and long-lasting effects on societal success and – more importantly in times of a global pandemic on human life. “We need to support our leaders by putting them on our scientific map and developing evidence-based models on how to optimally lead in times of crisis and beyond – models which have to consider self-reflection and sound ethics,” concludes Emmerling.

Keywords

LEADERPROFILE, leadership, leaders, followers, digitalisation, social robotics, robot leaders

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