Implicit Leadership Theory – What Makes a Good Leader, to You?

Based on our cultural experiences, all of us have a preconceived idea of the qualities, traits and characteristics that leaders should have. So a person viewed as an effective leader in one culture may be perceived as a disaster in another.

Have you ever briefly interacted with someone new and deduced that the individual must be in some form of a leadership role? Even though you hardly know that person, you connect some of the attributes displayed by that individual to what you view as good leadership qualities. Such a phenomenon is known as Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT). It suggests that based on our experiences, all of us have a preconceived idea of the qualities, traits and characteristics that leaders should have. In turn, such knowledge then guides us in determining what makes a good or bad leader. While there are general qualities which leaders should possess (being confident, influential, creative and in control), our viewpoint can change depending on our environment and culture. So what are some leadership characteristics that are unique to a Malaysian context?

Leaders have the authority to set directions and make decisions. Our hierarchical culture instills in us a respect for our elders or seniority, so leadership in the workplace is viewed as an organized hierarchy to maintain order and harmony at work. As such, the Western (egalitarian) practice of challenging the boss or company processes is not viewed favourably here especially if it leads to conflict. Rather, there is high power distance between leaders and subordinates, so decision making is assigned to the leaders. Therefore, even if there is an appointed leader for a project, there may be a high tendency to consult another superior for confirmation or approval before a final important decision is made.

Leaders should make decisions that benefit everyone. As a collectivist society, we place importance on group goals rather than on individual goals or satisfaction. Therefore, we expect leaders to consider the needs and concerns of their subordinates (to protect them, as it were) when deciding on work related matters. When one of the multinational companies I worked with went through a merger, a structural reorganization resulted in the reduction of headcount. Instead of letting some staff go, however, the local management decided to convert some permanent positions into contract agreements, thereby keeping the same number of staff while adhering to the worldwide policy change of reduction in permanent headcount. It was a much welcomed move as it ensured that employees could still keep their jobs while the company navigates through changes brought on by the merger.

Leaders are good at solving problems. When an issue arises, all eyes are usually turned towards the leader with high expectations of finding the best solution to the problem. In my previous role, I found that my team members were actually able to solve the issues on their own (given sufficient time) but somehow the immediate response was to forward the task of problem-solving to the boss, even for trivial matters. There seems to be an unspoken rule that the responsibility to manage conflict or deal with challenges belongs primarily to the leader.

In summary, there are various viewpoints as to what makes one a good and effective leader. As organizations become global, management styles and practices may evolve especially with the introduction of international colleagues or bosses. An effective leader in Malaysia should therefore strive to understand the different leadership approaches and integrate them with the local cultural expectations. Our cross-cultural leadership programs can help by providing successful approaches for leading diverse teams through a variety of workplace relevant intercultural challenges.

By: Boleh Blogger