Implicit Leadership Theories

As quickly as you can, think about your vision of a leader. What does this person look like?  What is their personality? What skills do they have? How do they behave? What don’t they do? Just use the first ideas that come to mind, don’t censor your ideas because they are not politically correct.

What assumptions did you make about your idea of a leader? Male or female? Tall or short? Smart? Extroverted? Passionate? Caring? Demanding? Asshole? Confident?

Everyone has a set of implicit assumptions about what a “good” leader looks like, sounds like and acts like. In the academic literature, these assumptions are called “Implicit Leadership Theories” (ILT).  Often these mental models or ILTs are developed in childhood. They tend to be culturally based, carrying the beliefs and assumptions of any particular culture.

Mental models of leadership are also influenced by organizational culture. Over time people in the same workplace adopt similar beliefs about the nature of an effective leader.  So what happens when a leader does not fit the mental leadership model of their followers?  Can they be effective leaders? Or do they need to adjust in order to fit with the demands of their followers? This suggests that leaders need to be aware of their own ILT and sensitive to the ILTs of their followers. In other words, explicit discussions about the nature of leaders between leaders and followers.

Yesterday, in my Leadership and Business course, my students completed an exercise exploring their Implicit Leadership Theories. While presenting their theories to the class, several of the teams accidentally referred to the leader as “he”, corrected themselves, and noted that the characteristics of leadership are gender neutral. This incident suggests to me that we often have deeply buried assumptions about leaders that we consciously reject, but unconsciously still hold fiercely. This example is all the more compelling because I teach at a women’s college that is dedicated to developing women’s leadership. These young women hold strong beliefs about the ability of women to lead. Yet they still slipped and referred to their model of a leader as “he”.

Have you recently dismissed the leadership potential of an employee because they don’t look the part of a leader? Because they don’t fit your idea of a leader? Because they were introverted and your ideal of a good leader is an extrovert? Maybe it is time to explore your implicit leadership theories.


Categories: Leadership

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for this well written article about ILT differences between employees and managers. It never occurred to me that differences in ILT perception can potentially become a major issue for both leaders and team members. Now, there will be a more conscious effort on my part to know how my own notion of ILT meets my teams ILT expectations of me. With regard to your last question, I usually don’t typecast a potential leader based on personality -introvert versus extrovert etc… I usually based promotions more objectively taking into consideration one’s performance, skills and how well they can relate and motivate other members of the team to achieve our common goal. Even introverts for this matter can be good leaders, this is in my opinion. 🙂

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