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What the world really needs to know about leadership

09 October 2018

‘Do you know how often organizations select the wrong manager?’, asks Janka Stoker. ‘Recent research carried out by Gallup shows that this happens in a staggering 82% of cases! These managers were often chosen just because they happened to be very good in their previous, non-managerial positions. That’s quite shocking, isn’t it? The best craftsman is made the boss; that’s not the way to select managers. And yet it’s still happening in practice, despite all the evidence showing that there’s more to being a manager than being good at your non-managerial job.’

‘A book essential to managers and leaders (including political leaders) who are brave enough to look in the mirror and want to make a real difference.’
‘A book essential to managers and leaders (including political leaders) who are brave enough to look in the mirror and want to make a real difference.’

Text: Riepko Buikema, Communication UG

Examples like this show how little impact solid academic research into leadership is having, say Stoker and Harry Garretsen from the In the LEAD expertise centre. ‘We’re on a mission. Far too little academic knowledge about leadership and management actually reaches the people who could put it to practical use.’

Contributing to public debate

Stoker, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change, and Garretsen, Professor of International Economics & Business, have been contributing to public debate on the subject for a number years, writing popular blogs and opinion pieces. Along with PhD student Lotte de Haan from the Faculty of Economics & Business and three economists from the Rabobank, the pair recently made the news with a large-scale research project into the quality of management in the Dutch manufacturing sector. Their book Goede leiders zweven niet (Taking hot air out of leadership), which is due to be published on 16 October, is set to be the next highlight.

Essential

The promotion text for their book doesn’t mince its words. The book is ‘essential to managers and leaders (including political leaders) who are brave enough to look in the mirror and want to make a real difference’, claim the authors. Garretsen: ‘As serious researchers, our dialogue is aimed at the field. We are driven by an urge to link real world examples about leadership in organizations, politics and the world, to relevant academic knowledge. We think that managers, HR professionals, and organizational consultants too, could learn a lot from this confrontation between the(ir) real world and academic knowledge.’

Janka Stoker and Harry Garretsen: ‘As serious researchers, our dialogue is aimed at the field. We are driven by an urge to link real world examples about leadership in organizations, politics and the world, to relevant academic knowledge.’
Janka Stoker and Harry Garretsen: ‘As serious researchers, our dialogue is aimed at the field. We are driven by an urge to link real world examples about leadership in organizations, politics and the world, to relevant academic knowledge.’

Not a cookery book

The book deals with questions such as: why is a manager important? What defines effective political leaders? Which type of manager suits which organization? How are external developments, such as robotization or automation, affecting your business? Garretsen: ‘Research can often predict what will and what won’t work in these matters. Our book is not a glorified cookery book – do this or that and you’ll be a good leader – but it does help to understand why some leaders and managers are successful and why others are not.’

Nonsense

‘Take the constant focus on Generation Y, the so-called Millennials’, says Stoker. ‘It’s often claimed that this is a very special generation with a strong need for a different style of leadership. But solid research has shown this to be total nonsense. Age may well be an important factor, but you can’t say that a whole generation needs a specific type of leadership. We must stop thinking like this!’ There’s enough fuzziness when it comes to leadership as it is, says Garretsen. ‘The message we want to convey is that leadership can’t be seen in isolation from its context. The type of organization is important, as are the moment in time, the country in which the organization is based, et cetera et cetera.’

Powerful combination of economics and psychology

This is exactly where the unique combination of economics and psychology at In the LEAD proves its worth, says Stoker who has her academic background in social and organizational psychology. ‘Psychology focuses on individual behavior. But in this respect, we’ve reached the limits of what we can say about effective leadership. We can discuss relations and processes between individuals, but we’re not often able to discuss causality or move the analysis beyond the interaction between a leader and team members. I believe this is a real problem. The data, and particularly the methods developed by economists, allow us to see beyond the individual manager and employee level and to study the relationship between leadership and a wider context. This fruitful combination of psychology and economics would not have been possible ten years ago, in this sense the two fields are converging.’

Taking a firm stand

Stoker and Garretsen now feel even more determined ‘to scale the barricades’, but their ideas do not go undisputed with practitioners. Stoker: ‘This is exactly the type of dialogue we’re after. We take a firm stand. What we for instance really would like is for the Senior Civil Service agency (Algemene Bestuursdienst or ABD) to call us after reading our book. This is the government agency responsible for appointing the most senior civil servants. We describe the leadership qualities the ABD requires of its managers as relying too much on process management, a vision that seriously needs rethinking in our view.’

Government unrealistic

The idea that a good leader can function effectively in any position is unrealistic, says Garretsen. ‘The thinking is that someone who is a good manager in let’s say the Ministry of Health will automatically be a good manager in the Foreign Affairs or Justice Department. But in organizations employing highly qualified, independent employees, it is particularly important that managers are not only competent process managers, but that they also have expert knowledge about the primary process of organizations. The staff in organizations like these want to have a boss who understands their work content-wise.’

Dangerous developments

The leadership qualities of political leaders such as Donald Trump and Mark Rutte also come under scrutiny in their book. Stoker: ‘The book finishes with a warning of sorts. When it comes leadership, some dangerous developments are taking place in the world right now. In both politics and business, we see leaders trying to seize more and more power. Research into leadership and power is essential, because academic knowledge is not just another opinion. It is important that this information reaches organizations and citizens, so we hope that our book will appeal to non-academics too. This will ensure that academic knowledge ultimately has an effect on the way we view leadership, and how we organize leadership within organizations and society. I know this sounds ambitious, but it’s what we are secretly hoping for.’

Last modified:18 October 2018 3.35 p.m.
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