The Impression Management of Transformational Leaders


leadershipTitle: The Impression Management Strategies Associated with Transformational Leadership at the World-Class Level

Published in Management Communication Quarterly, Aug 1998 while was a doctoral student working with Dr. William Gardner. 

Still very relevant and worth a read.  Here is the abstract and some discussion:

Abstract: This study explored the extent to which the five basic impression management strategies of ingratiation, self-promotion, intimidation, exemplification, and supplication were associated with transformational leadership at the world-class level. The subjects were 81 undergraduate business students who read biographical materials about 1 of 27 world-class leaders, prepared term papers about their leader, and completed psychometric measures regarding the leader’s behaviors. The measures included the Leader Impression Management Questionnaire (LIMQ) developed by the authors and the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ, 5X-Short Form). Exemplification and ingratiation were positively related, and self-promotion and intimidation negatively related, to perceptions of transformational leadership, leader effectiveness, and follower satisfaction.

Discussion: In presenting ourselves to others, we “act” in ways that the audience will perceive as “competent”, “morally worthy”, “likable”, “helpless” and even “feared” in order to succeed in the world of business.  Jones and Pittman identified these acts in their work in the mid 1980’s.  Though scholars have identified and tested many other impression management tactics, these five continue to be robust predictors of motives and behavior in the workplace.  The findings of this article are not particularly surprising if you read up on IM tactics a bit (a quick Google search will do the trick).  Mainly, people tend to associate true leadership with exemplification (acts aimed at convincing the audience that we are morally worthy of our position) and ingratiation (acts aimed at convincing the audience that we are liked).

Being seen as an exemplary leader involves a lot of different activities such as arriving to work early, staying late, doing the work that you ask others to do, being calm and even handed even when most people would not and doing the “right thing” when the wrong thing is all too easy to get away with.  Building a reputation of being worthy of your position of power and influence as a leader is a long-term process.  But the evidence overwhelmingly points to this as the attribute that followers look for in their leaders.

The second positively related attribute of great leaders is that they are liked.  We found this to be true even though the students in our study did not only read biographies of “good” leaders.  For instance, students were free to pick leaders who used coercion and intimation to lead like Hitler!   Despite this, we found a strong statistically significant relationship between what our subjects perceived as “world class leaders” and the attribute of “likability”.  It might seem too obvious to sate, but being liked adds to your reputation as a great leader.

Being feared is sometimes helpful as well.  Most leaders are not pushovers.  Everyone knows that they have a breaking point, and generally it is in your favor as a leader to let others know they “carry a big stick”, but use is sparingly.  Also, there are times when we need to defend ourselves from failures that happen around us, but that we are not responsible for.  So, supplication (demonstrating that we were helpless so that we are not held responsible for these failures) has a place in our arsenal of IM tactics.  However, these tactics can be easily overplayed and backfire on us.

Self-promotion is simply the act of associating ourselves with success and distancing ourselves from failure.  Our study did find this “act” to be negatively associated with leaders, but this may be because great leaders promote themselves without being perceived as doing so.  A skillful self-promoter knows how to sell his competence without ever being perceived as a bragger or bigwig.  They often promote their own competence by pointing to the competence of others’ work to whom they associate themselves.  In this sense, they exemplify our notion of a servant leader.

So, if you want to lead others effectively, identify exactly what others expect from you in your position as leader.  You will undoubtedly have to make tough decision that will not be popular with the masses, but rather than trying to please everyone, focus on satisfying the leadership role that is expected of you.  You accepted the position as leader, now you must live it!  Secondly, when you have all of the power, you have no reason not to be kind!  Keep your cool, remember that you’re in control, and take every opportunity to notice and reward the work of others with kind words.  Take time to socialize with the people around you.  Take off you managerial crown at least for a while every day, get out with the masses and mix it up a bit.  Remember some birthdays, make it a habit to know when an employee has a new baby or has been out sick for a while.  The little things are perhaps bigger than you think!

Best of luck with your leadership challenge.  I hope exemplification and ingratiation help you think through ways you might strengthen your relationship with followers and bring you to a new level of leadership!

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