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Leadership and Context

Beginning in the 1970s, contextual factors slowly gained consideration in leadership studies as they were expected to alter leadership research and impact the leader-follower relationship (Howell, Dorfman & Kerr, 1986; Osborn, Uhl-Bien & Milosevic, 2014). Osborn et al. (2014, pp. 589-590) summarize the evolution of leadership attention along with the interest in contextual matters in three simplistic terms: (1) leadership nested in hierarchy; which describes a leader-centric approach resulting from a hierarchical interaction of a leader with followers, (2) leadership to be pervasive in social processes; including relational components of influence, and (3) hybrid approaches of nested and pervasive views. Hybrid concepts primarily take into account the context in which leadership occurs, shifting with the evolution of leadership (Osborn et al., 2014, p. 590). Hybrid approaches in leadership research link context to influence, or as the researchers describe, they link context to causal mechanisms. Observing the importance of a definition as the starting point for research, the authors present influential mechanisms of an individual residing in an organization as nested, taking the work unit and organizational context into consideration. Pervasive views reflect moreover social constructs, including the interaction of individuals. Rather than building the foundation of what needs to be studied, in pervasive views leadership emerges as a result of context: Hybrid approaches view leadership as necessarily embedded in social context. Context is co-defined with leadership, and is a trigger for the emergence of specific aspects of lead-ership as well as the effectiveness of different leadership dimensions. (Osborn et al., 2014, p. 592)

Potentially limiting leadership influence, distance leadership provides a stimulating area of interest. Shamir (1995) and Katz and Kahn (1978) argue that distance may significantly influence certain effects of leadership. While distance opens a wide range of investigative fields, Osborn et al. (2014) disagree on the extent to which context clarification is truly needed in leadership research. In particular, because distance has multiple dimensions, this work assumes the challenge and investigates not only the most commonly used form of distance - physical distance. It further considers the ability of leaders and followers to form relationships and investigates the chance of communication to overcome the obstacles distance brings with it. Osborn et al. (2014) believe leader-member exchange and transformational leadership to be rooted in the leader as individual. Although the authors argue that transformational leaders do not adapt to context, foundations of the present work rest on the knowledge that individuals have to adjust to contextual parameters in order to be effective.

Anything but existing in a vacuum (House & Aditya, 1997, p. 445), the leader- follower relationship requires attention to organizational characteristics, demographic variables, and other environmental factors (Antonakis et al., 2003, p. 270). Liden and Antonakis (2009) define context as the “milieu - the physical and social environment - in which leadership is observed” (p. 1587). The researchers insist that in order to understand context, one must necessarily study its moderating effect, as context might contain references for interpretation (Liden & Antonakis, 2009) or provide alterations to understand leadership under certain circumstances (Abernathy, Bouwens & Van Lent, 2010). Despite the awareness of contextual impact, research thus far has not produced a satisfactory amount of empirical evidence (Hauschildt & Konradt, 2012b; Porter & McLaughlin, 2006).

Scholars are indeed becoming increasingly aware of possible moderating effects of contextual factors when studying leader-follower relationships. Predominantly, forms of distance between leaders and subordinates have progressively retained researchers’ attention, as distance is expected to impact leader effectiveness and work-related outcomes (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002). In particular, the study conducted by Cole et al. (2009) is one of the first to examine different aspects of distance in a moderating role. As work settings may involve contingencies that the supervisor is not able to control (Manz & Sims, 1980) distance dimensions might just be more of those. With real-time information available, this environment requires leaders to form customized relationships (Avolio, Kahai & Dodge, 2001, p. 617). Without explicit consideration of the context, leadership is hard to integrate. Kelley and Kelloway (2012, p. 438) note that, in particular, the distance context needs attention as it differs widely from the proximal context, for instance, in the way communication shifts from face-to-face to virtual.

Leadership models have to be adapted to the context of distance leadership to stand a chance of fully functioning. Bridging the gap of trusting relationships in a distance setting might be possible by applying a concept that Hertel, Konradt and Or- likowski (2004) call Management by Interdependence. The underlying assumption of this concept is that by increasing togetherness among team members and leader, physical and temporal distance might be compensated for (Hertel et al., 2004). The concept refers to three levels of interdependency: (1) task interdependency, (2) goal interdependency, and (3) result interdependency. The interpretation of task interdependency allows for the assumption that if team members are all linked by the work they do, they have to work together and, as a result, they become familiar with each other. For goal interdependency, the theory suggests that the higher the individual goal of each team member, the more likely it is for the group to accomplish a favorable group result. Result interdependency is claimed to impact teamwork in a virtual environment as it reinforces identification with the group by setting collective goals (Hertel et al., 2004).

Avolio et al. (2001) suggest that context influences the way information technology emerges and how it is applied. Corporations using social media channels for work may empower followers to engage actively with each other, creating a collective purpose and a common social identity (Eisenbeiss, Blechschmidt, Backhaus & Freund, 2012; Sheldon, Abad & Hinsch, 2011). Motivational factors leading to the use of virtual worlds include the desire to socialize, express creativity, and escape (Eisenbeiss et al., 2012, p. 16). Seeking the needs for relatedness and selfexpression (Avolio et al., 2014), social media used by leaders was further found to be related to transformational leadership traits (Sosik, Chun, Blair & Fitzgerald, 2013). Avolio and colleagues (2014) argue that in a technology-driven environment, leaders are likely to encounter greater pressure to act authentically and be transparent. Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007) suggest that the usage of social media in organizations shifts the locus of leadership to the context. There are many factors influencing the performance of leaders, and determining which leadership style is the most effective in a particular context can be critical to success (Kets de Vries, Vrignaud, Agrawal & Florent-Treacy, 2010). The authors believe that interrelatedness between leaders, followers, and the context is the key to organizational effectiveness as understanding of leadership practices needs to be tailored to the specific situation.

Eichenberg (2007, p. 68) describes the context of distance leadership as dependent on the entire environment within and surrounding the organization, in which leader and followers are embedded (Figure 4). The leadership situation refers to the special characteristics of a leader-follower relation, e.g., leader-follower physical distance, interaction frequency or relationship distance, with regard to the quality of relationship.

Figure 4. Contextual Interactions of Distance Leadership

Source: Eichenberg (2007, p. 68)

 
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