Leadership in academic settings

Identifying the key leadership behaviours and roles of formal and peer leaders

Leadership is an important lever for achieving a high-performance, pleasant and safe working environment at a university. In this respect, leadership is not only reserved for managers; members within the team can also assume leadership and thereby have an important impact on team effectiveness and colleagues’ well-being.

This project aimed to further substantiate the language about leadership in teams. More specifically, we wanted to identify key forms of positive leadership behaviour within the university context, not only for formal leaders, but also for leaders within a team. This research was conducted by Leading Insights – an expertise centre on leadership development – in collaboration with the Human Resources Department of the university.

In a first phase, we conducted qualitative research to identify the leadership behaviours and leadership roles posed by formal leaders and by team members within the specific context of a university. To this end, we conducted interviews of both formal leaders and team members across the university. This led to a list of 50 different leadership behaviours posed by formal leaders and 40 different leadership behaviours posed by team members. These concrete behaviours were then clustered into broader leadership roles by several focus groups of HR staff: 16 leadership roles for formal leaders and 14 leadership roles for team members. You will find an overview of these roles with associated behaviours here.

In a second phase, we conducted quantitative research through a large-scale cross-sectional questionnaire with 918 participants. Here, we examined the relationship between these leadership roles and several outcomes, namely team identification, team cohesion, job satisfaction, work engagement, team effectiveness and organizational citizenship behaviour (OCB; i.e. doing more than what your job requires). This was examined in both management teams (department or faculty), research teams and ATP teams from all domains within the university.

    This quantitative component revealed, firstly, that all identified leadership roles and behaviours were considered relevant by the majority of the study participants. This was the case both for the different groups (board teams, research teams, and ATP teams) and for the different echelons of the university. This means, therefore, that the observed roles and behaviours can be integrated in future leadership training programmes, where they can provide valuable guidelines for the further development of leadership skills within the various groups and echelons of the university.

    The perceived quality of leadership, both by formal leaders and leaders within the team (here also called peer leaders), was rated on a scale of 0 to 10 with mean scores between 5.8 and 7.0. We found a moderate correlation between formal leadership roles and each of the surveyed outcomes. In addition, a moderate to strong correlation emerged between different peer leadership roles and each of the desired outcomes. When leadership roles are considered relevant but are not occupied or when leadership roles are occupied with low quality, we also see significantly lower scores on the different outcomes, and this for both formal leaders and leaders within the team.

    Thus, our findings show that each of the identified leadership roles is important for higher team identification, team cohesion, job satisfaction, work engagement, team effectiveness and OCB. These results thereby confirm the importance of leadership within our university, not only demonstrated by the formal manager, but also by the leaders within the team. Here, our analyses recommend 'the more, the better'. In other words, demonstrating good leadership on more leadership roles correlates with better outcomes.

    Since the different leadership roles tend to be occupied equally and with similar quality across all roles, we cannot provide clear advice around which leadership roles should be occupied to achieve a particular outcome. Our results do show that no single leadership role by itself is really necessary to achieve a given outcome. So we cannot say that a leader should definitely occupy one role to achieve a particular outcome. However, we can conclude that there are different leadership paths to achieve well-functioning teams, with the more different leadership roles being properly occupied, the better the different outcomes.

    Further analyses show that both leaders within the team and formal leaders have unique contributions to each of the outcomes. Thus, good formal leaders as well as good leaders within the team both add significant value to each of the outcomes. For team identification, team cohesion and OCB, the contribution of peer leaders is even greater than that of formal leaders. This is true for both research teams and ATP teams (board teams were excluded from this analysis due to a more limited sample size). For work engagement, the contribution of peer leaders is larger in research teams, while the contribution of formal leaders is larger in ATP teams. For job satisfaction, it is the opposite. Finally, within research teams, both leaders contribute equally to team effectiveness, whereas within ATP teams, peer leaders are clearly more important for team effectiveness.

    Next, we investigated the extent to which the above contribution of leaders on team outcomes is influenced by variables such as age, gender, team size, team tenure, and the degree of digital versus face-to-face contact with formal leader, team members or entire team. No significant effect emerged, with the only exception being that the work engagement of older employees was slightly less influenced by the estimated quality of peer leaders. Overall, we can therefore state that the positive relationships found between leadership quality (both of formal leaders and leaders within the team) and the different outcomes are not dependent on the person or team characteristics studied.

    We can conclude that having both good formal leaders and good peer leaders contributes significantly to each of the outcomes. Moreover, combination of both good formal leaders and good peer leaders is also better than having only a good formal leader or only good peer leaders. It is therefore important to invest in the leadership of both formal leaders and leaders within the team, and this for the different groups and echelons within the university.

    To support the above investment in leadership development in the context of teams, we can use a lot of material and insights from this study:

    • The labels and descriptions of leadership behaviours and roles for both formal leaders and peer leaders are very concrete and specific to the context within our university. They can be used for reflection and discussion, both individually and in teams, as well as to solicit feedback, both one-on-one and from several colleagues at the same time. Leading Insights has developed the Shared Leadership Mapping tool which, through a 360° feedback analysis, can map the leadership structure on each of these roles within the entire team. More information on this can be found on here.
    • This research highlights the importance of good leadership, demonstrated both by the formal leader and by peer leaders in order to achieve desired team outcomes. These insights can contribute to making good teamwork more concrete in different teams at KU Leuven (board teams, research teams and ATP teams)

    Using the following links, you can read more about the qualitative study, the leadership roles derived from the leadership behaviours, and the quantitative study, where you can also find these analyses in more detail. Thank you in advance for helping to build leadership within our university!