Sunday, May 1, 2011

How Do We Differentiate between Individual and Group Leadership?

In a 2010 article in the Academy of Management Journal, Joshua Wu, Anne Tsui and Angelo Kinicki highlight how until recently the study of leadership and of groups had constituted two large, but very separate, literatures. Now, however, researchers have begun to integrate these two literatures in an attempt to understand the role of leadership in groups.

Wu, Tsui and Kinicki’s research “aimed to investigate transformational leadership on groups (as wholes) and on individuals within groups. They focused on transformational leadership behaviours, which inspire followers to pursue higher-order goals and to exert extraordinary effort. Research has shown that the construct of transformational leadership is flexible as to levels of analysis, comprising behaviours targeted at both groups and individuals. Some of its behavioural components are aimed at influencing individual employees by addressing the uniqueness of each follower; where such behaviour represents individual-focused leadership. Other behavioural components are aimed at influencing a group as a whole; where such behaviour represents group-focused leadership. Wu, Tsui and Kinicki adopt the label Differentiated Leadership to refer to the case in which a leader exhibits varying levels of individual-focused leadership behaviour to different group members, for instance paying more attention or providing more support to some members than to others,” (p.90). Where the key question is how differentiated leadership may negatively impact a group’s effectiveness as a consequence of the different levels of individual attention given by the leader.

The logic in this approach is that effective leadership shouldn’t just be praised by the majority of the leaders group, but by the group as a whole.

In their article Wu, Tsui and Kinicki remind us that “group-focused leadership is based on the idea of average leadership style, a concept that implies that leaders view group members as a whole and treat each in the same fashion. Members’ perceptions of their group leader’s behaviour are assumed to be similar and shared within their work unit. Two transformational leadership behaviours – idealised influence and inspirational motivation – are more likely to influence a group as a whole than individual members because of their emphasis on common ground, shared values, and ideology,” (p.92).

“Group-focused leadership is expected to shape members’ group identification, which is a shared cognitive process in which each member defines the self in terms of his or her relationship to the group. The collective nature of group-focused leadership triggers followers’ self-categorisation as group members. A member no longer views themselves as a unique individual but construes there identity to be that of a member of the group. Group attributes such as shared values and common goals become salient to the members, while individualised idiosyncratic characteristics lose prominence,” (p.92).

Some reading this may think that to lead each member in the same way is an impossibility as each individual must have different strengths and weaknesses and be at different levels of development. But the research isn’t looking at the micro level, but the macro level, and individual perceptions; where the leader should be seen by the individuals to give each the same amount of attention – where in that time, different discussions will be taking place. When the whole group needs new skills or direction, the leader gives these to the group at a single meeting.

At the other extreme, “individual-focused leadership is grounded in situational leadership theories and leader-member exchange (LMX) theory. These theories suggest that effective leaders vary their behaviour on the basis of individual differences and contextual factors, resulting in differentiated leadership of group members. The influence in this case is individual members rather than their whole group. Two components of transformational leadership behaviours – individualised consideration and intellectual stimulation – appear to focus more on individual needs, capabilities and effective states than on their collective interests,” (p.93).

Followers under the influence of individual-focused leadership are likely to develop close, direct and unique relationships with their leaders that are characterised by mutual trust, support, and satisfaction.

The importance of this research is that it highlights how “at the group level, differentiated leadership captures the variation of individual-focused leadership among a work group’s members. A high level of differentiated leadership indicates that a leader behaves differently towards different members; where the leader spends more time coaching certain members than others or provides intellectual challenges to some followers more than others. Importantly LMX studies have reported that when leaders form relationships with followers differently within the group, these followers are likely to be divided into sub-groups; an in-group and an out-group, with the former enjoying a better relationship with the leader than the latter,” (p.94).

As we continue to focus on developing the most effective leaders for the future, these privileged individuals must learn to effectively lead individuals and groups into the next decade and beyond – where the leader is as effective leading individuals as he or she is leading their organisational teams.


Wu, J.B., Tsui, A.S., and Kinicki, A.J. (2010). Consequences of Differentiated Leadership in Groups. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1, p.90-106.

1 comment:

  1. A very helpful piece.

    I believe, however, that there is a further aspect to this - what I call the difference between "Leadership" and "Leaders Leading". Most of the literature focuses on what I call "Leaders Leading" - the activities of an individual interacting with either other individuals or groups. This is the focus of the work by Joshua Wu, Anne Tsui and Angelo Kinicki.

    But what about the overall activity of what I term "Leadership" - that shared activity of all those with the responsibility to lead and how the impact they jointly have on both individuals and groups within any organisation? In my research and experience it is becoming clear that it is the overall leadership group that determines the culture and, all too often, the impact of this group has a negative impact on the results that may be obtained by individual exemplary leaders.