Saturday, August 18, 2012

Are You an Individually Focused Leader?

In the context of team leadership, “individual focused-leadership is grounded in situational leadership theories and leader-member exchange theory (LMX). These theories suggest that effective leaders vary their behaviour on the basis of follower’s individual differences (e.g. abilities) and contextual factors (e.g. resources, task structure) resulting in differentiated leadership of group members. The influence target in this case is individual members rather than the whole group (or team),” (Wu, J.B., Tsui, A.S. and Kinicki, A.J., 2010, p.93).

These individually focused leaders respond to the needs of their ‘team’ to help develop them and support their individual performance and motivation; which mustn’t be confused with poor or ineffective leadership, where the individual style is based on ‘favourites’ and avoidance of uncomfortable situations or conflict. Where if you’re not liked by the ‘pretend’ leader, then you are ostracised and set up for failure.

As Joshua Wu, Anne Tsui and Angelo Kinicki highlight “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, satisfaction and interpersonal attraction. As a result, followers are more likely to incorporate the leader into their self-concepts and to identify with him or her – that is leader identification occurs,” (p.93).

As with many theories on leadership, they appear obvious on the surface and yet, if this was really true, one would have to ask why this form of leadership doesn’t happen more in practice. One reason is simply that the leader has to have the proven and practical experience, knowledge and skills to perform the role, for it to be really effective. One key driver is ‘honest confidence’, where the leader ‘really’ knows themself and has sufficient experience working with people to be able to recognise and understand, very quickly, what drives the different individuals in their team or organisation. 

This experience will only come from having had the ‘privilege’ to be led by a great leader, to learn the approaches and skills that help motivate individuals to develop and perform to their optimum. Without the right exposure and experience it isn’t that easy to just ‘jump’ in and take on an effective individually focused leadership role.

This doesn’t mean if you haven’t be led by a great leader, you won’t become an effective leader yourself – but what it does mean is that you first have to recognise that you haven’t been exposed to effective leadership styles (or parts thereof) and to identify from the ‘bad’, what the right approach should be.

Having time to engage one-on-one with your team (followers) is a prerequisite that is non-negotiable – where this time is sufficient to discuss all the key issues that need discussing; the process is formal and not casual; and the meetings are regular.

The biggest mistake that you can make is not to spend the time to understand the individuals under your ‘charge’; what their expectations are, how they like to be communicated with and what makes them tick. I constantly find that too many leaders don’t spend enough time to discuss expectations and for some reason, just assume they know what they are, which leads to problems down the line when priorities get confused. 

What’s important about focusing on individual focused leadership is that it forces us to consider two parallel processes – firstly the collective nature and performance of the ‘whole’ (the team) and secondly the teams individual members.

It’s also important to recognise that “although previous leader-member exchange research rests on the assumption that developing unique leader-member relationships in a group is likely to create sub-groups and may be detrimental to group work, there is actually no empirical evidence to support this assumption,” (Wu, J.B., Tsui, A.S. and Kinicki, A.J., 2010, p.101).

What makes individual focused leadership work is simply the quality of the leader-member relationship, as perceived by the followers; since the central argument of situational leadership theories is that leaders need to exhibit different behaviours to fit the different characteristics and situational factors of their individual followers.


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. such a wonderful blog to sharing. Blog talking regarding to developing as a leader. Thanks for sharing such a inspirational blog.

  2. A disadvantage of individual-focused leadership is that the leader treats everybody differently. It can have negative effects, especially on a team setting. Yes, it can increase the efficiency of the individual members but some may see it as favoritism.

    @Faith Goss