Different organizations, different leaders: Anthropology and leadership

In this article, I discuss the importance of a well-fitting leadership style to the construction of organizational culture. I start by explaining the formation process of organizational culture. Secondly, I explain the situational leadership style and discuss the pros and cons of looking into leadership from a typological perspective. Finally, I elaborate on the role that anthropology can play in researching leadership and organizational culture and change.

Dynamically static

As Frost (1985) and Schein (2015) state, culture can be understood as a process, as well as a state. It offers a frame through which people form meaning; this denotes a more or less fixed state. On the other hand, culture is always developing and constantly evolving; that is why it can be seen as a process. Culture is always present, but almost never noticed explicitly by the members of a group. It can Change really fast because of a certain event, or remain the same for a long time.

In researching organizational culture, it is important to pay attention to the historical process of culture formation. As Sahlins notes:

One cannot really understand certain social phenomena without understanding both the historical events and the cultural meanings attributed by the actors to those events (in Schein, 2015, p. 923).

Organizational culture builds on events; more specifically on the way the leaders and members react on these events. Let’s take a look at the way culture is created.

How do cultures develop?

When a formal group is created, the leader’s behavior is influenced by his or her goals, assumptions, values and beliefs. These features are imposed upon the members of the group, or members are selected based on the similarity of assumptions. If the assumptions lead to success, they are confirmed and turn into shared values. When the accomplishments continue, the shared values will fade more into the background and transform into non-negotiable assumptions which will be taken for granted after a while. Finally, these taken for granted non-negotiable assumptions form paradigms that guide the members’ behavior. In different departments, there can be different paradigms, and these paradigms are what culture is built on.

The ideal leader

As the process of culture formation illustrates, leadership plays an important role in creating organizational culture. We all have a certain idea about what a leader is; s/he guides, decides, motivates, rewards, and influences. I believe it is important to highlight that a leader is not necessarily a person in a high hierarchic position, but rather someone that is able to transmit a positive attitude and motivates other members of the group. There are many different styles a leader can adopt; from authoritarian to democratic, from commanding to laissez-faire. Burke and Barron (2014) argue that the optimal leadership style depends on the following aspects:

  • The personality of the leader.
  • The maturity of followers.
  • The current situation of the group, the project or the company.
  • The wider needs of the organizational environment.

Typologies and their characteristics

As we live in a rapidly-changing world, in order to (continue to) succeed, leaders must adapt their styles to changing circumstances.  Many scholars have created typologies to classify different kinds of leadership styles. In this article, I elaborate on situational leadership, which advocates for a different leadership style depending on the situation. A situational leader is flexible and has the skills to adapt his or her behavior to the needs of his or her followers.

Hershey and Blanchard (1977) developed a set of four primary styles of leadership including (1) the ‘telling’ style which directs a less competent, yet motivated group what to do. (2) The ‘selling’ style is useful for a group that is more or less competent to carry out the task but lacks the commitment to the task. (3) For a group that is competent, but lacks the confidence of achieving its goals, the ‘supporting’ style fits best. Here, the leader is present to ensure the group of its capability but doesn’t take on a directing leadership style. (4) Finally, for a group that is capable and committed the leader takes on a ‘delegating’ style.

When it comes to research, these typologies offer a lens through which companies can be understood when researching their cultures; they simplify our thinking by providing categories for sorting out complexities.

Although typologies can be very helpful, a number of downsides should be mentioned; besides the risk of oversimplifying detailed complexities, typologies may provide categories that are irrelevant to the company. Another downside is that typologies limit our perspective by prematurely focusing on specific dimensions. For these reasons, I believe it is best to start researching organizational culture with an open mind, and not to pay much attention to the possible typologies an organization can belong to.

The anthropological lens

This is where anthropology comes in; we enter the field with an open mind, almost like an outsider fascinated by all the new observations.

All is data!

is a phrase that my professor S. Van Wolputte repeated over and over again in his lectures about fieldwork. As outsiders, we notice small details that otherwise are left unnoticed. As anthropologists, we train our skills to place ourselves in other people’s shoes; we attempt to see the world from our participants’ point of view. This is what differentiates us from merely quantitative researchers. We believe that quantitative research is valuable; statistics are important to analyze data but believe that crucial details can only be obtained by close (participant) observation. Using ethnography to describe, understand and evaluate the organizational culture, anthropologists spend time in the company; they conduct deep semi-structured interviews, focus groups and organize workshops.

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