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Leaders did react, but didn’t change | The effect of the 2008 financial crisis on leadership

Datum:26 september 2018

This month is the 10th anniversary of the start of the 2008 financial crisis. The fall of  Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008 impacted on the entire global business world, and was the trigger for  the so-called Great Recession. Economists have been racking their brains about the causes and effects of this crisis, resulting in several important books like This time is different by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009), and more recently Crashed by Tooze (2018). All of them give  their own analysis of the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and provide a largely a macro-perspective.

However, we still know very little about the impact that the financial crisis had within  organizations. How does a shock like this affect organizations and their leaders? Very little information on this subject is available in the literature about leadership. This is because, to answer the question, international and comparable data about leadership behavior are needed. And as you can probably imagine, information like this is hard to come by.

Nevertheless, the consultancy firm Korn Ferry Hay Group gave us access to unique data on over 20,000 managers in 980 organizations across 36 countries. Employees working for these managers answered all kinds of questions about their bosses, providing information relating to both before and after the 2008 crisis. This information enabled us to ascertain whether the financial crisis led to changes in leadership behavior.

The results show that changes in behavior certainly did take place when one compares the years just before and after the 2008 crisis (Stoker, Garretsen & Soudis, 2018):

  1. The crisis caused a significant increase in directive leadership behavior – managers were stricter, reduced autonomy  and exercised more control;
  2. This effect was stronger in the manufacturing sector, and surprisingly was not present in the financial sector;
  3. The effect was also stronger in countries with a high power distance. In countries and cultures where unequal social relations are more common and strong hierarchies are the norm, this style of leadership became even more explicit;
  4. The effect of the crisis was temporary. The level of directive leadership behavior returned to normal, that it to say its pre-crisis level, again within one or two years of the crisis.

These results teach us about the crisis reflex of managers. Regardless of whether an organization does or does not benefit from a more directive style of leadership, the temporary nature of the change is particularly striking. Some two years later, managers no longer showed any signs of having been through a crisis. In fact, in the financial sector, the crisis had no significant effect on leadership behavior whatsoever. It seems that organizations failed to take advantage of this golden opportunity to think more fundamentally about the necessary changes within their organizations and in the behavior of their managers, while it is known that change always starts with the behaviors of leaders (Stoker, 2005).  

The old adage ‘never waste a good crisis’ doesn’t seem to apply to the 2008 crisis. At most, this crisis caused a ripple of different leadership behavior. Thus 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and despite all the fine words and even such measures as the Bankers’ Oath, very little seems to have changed - as recently painfully demonstrated by the money laundering affair involving the ING bank. If an unprecedented shock like the 2008 crisis isn’t enough to cause fundamental change, we can only hope (and probably in vain) that change will start from within. It’s enough to make one a bit sombre, amidst  all the positive l economic news that was announced by the Rutte III government t on Budget Day in the Netherlands.

Click here for the full article in The Leadership Quarterly.