It goes without saying that high-quality leadership is essential in what we do and what we can obtain. And this leadership can be found on every level, ranging from the government which runs our country, over top-level management who determine the success of their company, to the competencies of teachers and parents who shape the next generation. Also within sport, it is common knowledge that the coach has a decisive role in a team's success.
It's therefore not surprising that throughout history a broad range of studies were conducted on what it is exactly that makes leaders become great leaders. It should be noted, though, that most of this research focused on the role of the formal leader; the manager or CEO in an organisation, the coach in a sport team, and the teacher in school.
Here, the strength of the leaders within the team has largely been underestimated. This is a pity as more recent research has shown that team members can offer great added value when they are allowed to actively rake on responsibility and influence the direction that their team is going.
The research on what exactly it is that makes these leaders within the team great leaders is extremely rare. Therefore our expertise centre Leading Insights has started a research line with the aim of investigating the characteristic attributes for high-quality leadership within teams. We are pleased to share our results with you.
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”
A first study on this topic revealed that the extent to which team members feel connected to a leader is decisive for the extent to which players perceive this leader as a good leader. And this was not only the case for general leadership, but also for task, motivational, social, and external leadership specifically. This social connectedness even appeared to be more predictive for the perceived leadership quality than factors such as age, sport experience, team tenure, leadership experience outside sport, and the formal recognition as team captain.
The power of social connection is therefore the main reason why our Shared Leadership Mapping relies on the perceptions that team members give to one another. In this way, we ensure immediately that the appointed leaders will also have the necessary support base in the team, which allows us to maximise the team's effectiveness.
Also our Social Insights Mapping, which maps the social relations in the team, directly relies on these findings. By choosing consciously for the leaders who are also central in the social network, we maximise our chances on high-quality and impactful leadership.
In this research, we monitored 27 newly formed teams (195 team members) who worked together on a project for 24 weeks. Each of these teams started at the beginning with a structure of hierarchical leadership in which a more experienced team member was appointed as leader. In the course of the 24 weeks, this teams naturally evolved towards a structure of shared leadership. Interesting was that the teams with the highest-quality shared leadership in their teams were also the ones that performed best.
Furthermore, wee examined what it was exactly that made some team members rise throughout the process and became perceived by their team members as better leaders? We specifically looked here to two characteristics, namely the connection with other team members and the own competence.
The study findings confirmed the importance of both factors. Where previously it was mainly competence that was linked to leadership, our results sowed that not only competence, but also having a good connection with team members were essential characteristics for team members to gain leader status. This findings confirm that the results previously found in the sport context also hold within organisations. Also for organisations it is thus essential that when appointing leaders based on our Shared Leadership Mapping, we also take into account the results of the Social Insights Mapping, as this allows us to appoint leaders who also have a broad social support base in the team.
Although the attributes included in the above studies explained a significant proportion of the variance in leadership quality, we should note that we only included a limited set of attributes in these studies. It is therefore possible that other characteristics are even more decisive for leadership quality. The associated nature-nurture discussion searches for an answer on the question whether leadership is innate (nature: leadership being a fixed personality trait) or whether is something that can be taught (nurture: leadership as a changeable behaviour).
With our research, we aimed to identify the attributes that were most decisive for good leadership within teams. Therefore, we conducted a large-scale study in which we asked 776 participants to rate themselves on a broad variety of personality traits (nature: e.g., extraversion, optimism, etc.), as well as a broad variety of leadership behaviours (nurture: e.g., encouragement, setting an example, etc.). These leadership attributes were then associated with how good this person was perceived as a task, motivational, social, and external leader by the other team members.
The results pointed at a combination of nature and nurture: although personality traits (such as extraversion) caused some persons to be naturally predisposed to be better leaders than others, it were mainly the leadership behaviours which were decisive for good leadership quality. And this is of course good news as behaviours can be developed in contrast to fixed personality traits. This thus entails that our leadership programs can really help team members in learning how to provide leadership in a good way.
If we then look at the specific behaviours who were most predictive of high-quality leadership, it appeared that the talent to cultivate a strong team identity — a shared sense of 'we' and 'us' — was essential, and this held for the leaders in each of the four leadership roles. Good leaders thus succeed in making their team members think, feel, and behave as one team (as 'we'), rather than as a group of individuals (as 'you' and 'me').
These research findings constitute the basis of our development programs in which we aim to strengthen this identity leadership. By teaching leaders how to strengthen this shared sense of 'we' and 'us', they will not only be perceived as better leaders, but also increase their impact on the team's functioning and member well-being.
Fransen, K., Haslam, S. A., Steffens, N. K., & Boen, F. (2020). Standing out from the crowd: Identifying the traits and behaviors that characterize high-quality athlete leaders on and off the field. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 30, 766– 786. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13620
Fransen, K., Delvaux, E., Mesquita, B., & Van Puyenbroeck, S. (2018). The emergence of shared leadership in newly formed teams with an initial structure of vertical leadership: A longitudinal analysis. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 54(2), 140-170. doi:10.1177/0021886318756359
Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2018). When is a leader considered as a good leader? Perceived impact on teammates’ confidence and social acceptance as key ingredients. International Journal of Psychology Research, 12(1), 1-21.
De Cuyper, B., Boen, F., Van Beirendonck, C., Vanbeselaere, N., & Fransen, K. (2016). When do elite cyclists go the extra mile? Team identification mediates the relationship between perceived leadership qualities of the captain and social laboring. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 47(4), 355-372. doi:10.7352/IJSP 2016.47
Fransen, K., Haslam, S. A., Mallett, C. J., Steffens, N. K., Peters, K., & Boen, F. (2016). Leading from the centre: A comprehensive examination of the relationship between central playing positions and leadership in sport. PLoS ONE, 11(12), e0168150. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0168150
Fransen, K., Van Puyenbroeck, S., Loughead, T. M., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2015). The art of athlete leadership: Identifying high-quality leadership at the individual and team level through Social Network Analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 37(3), 274-290. doi:10.1123/jsep.2014-0259