Home Business & Finance Distance Leadership in International Corporations: Why Organizations Struggle when Distances Grow
Today’s leadership faces challenges that have evolved through the process of globalization and the widespread use of technological advancements. Physically proxi?mate leadership as we have known it for decades is steadily substituted with leadership through digital media as team members are often located around the world. The need for physical proximity is replaced with the need for competences (Weis- band, 2008). Leadership from physical distance does not imply that conventional responsibilities become obsolete; nevertheless, traditional elements of leadership may lose relevance.
Leadership at a distance has been the subject of recent investigations, working hand in hand with the application of AIT in organizations. Yet only few empirical studies have since been published (e.g., Andressen et al., 2012; Cole et al., 2009). Most research has been conceptual in nature. The value of insights in distance leadership is undoubtedly increasing as international corporations are forced to collaborate, and with the assistance of AIT this is today possible virtually. With Bass (1990, p. 658) defining leadership as dependent on physical proximity, the premise of leadership is now questioned.
Looking back on the first half of the twentieth century, Bogardus (1927) was the first to conceptualize the subject of distance within leadership research. Notably, until today the topic has received little attention, although the value in assessing contextual factors in leadership is promising (Cole et al., 2009). Limited attempts have been made to examine distance leadership by comparing leadership behavior in proximate and distant settings (e.g., Connaughton & Daly, 2004; Howell & Hall- Merenda, 1999; Howell et al., 2005). According to Remdisch and Utsch (2006, p. 36) distant leadership comprises three dimensions in addition to traditional leadership: (1) distance; i.e., physical, social and cultural distance, (2) media-supported leadership and (3) changed organizational format; i.e., project work and virtual teams. The authors further identify six core elements of distance leadership which they predict to be influential in a physically distant leader-follower relationship: distance and trust, team development, communication, working routines, qualification and development, and culture. Moreover, modern leaders incorporate a new leadership competence which is described as global literacy by Rosen and Digh (2001, p. 74). Global literal leaders inherit all four attributes that are essential for sustainable leadership in a virtual world: personal, social, business, and cultural literacy. The first element refers to understanding and valuing oneself. The second attribute entails engagement and challenging others. The next feature depicts the broader image of an organization by focusing and mobilizing one’s business. Finally, the last dimension declares valuing and utilizing cultural differences as a key competence (Rosen & Digh, 2001, p. 74). Alon and Higgins (2005) suggest a three- step approach to developing intercultural leadership competences. First, the potential leaders’ skills should be assessed, upon which, in the next step, appropriate ed?ucation is provided. The third step involves on-the-job experience in a foreign culture. Professional knowledge of the organization’s core business processes, managerial competences, including the ability to work in teams and having interpersonal skills, strategic international understanding, frequent exchange of information, and cross-cultural competences are further indispensable for future organizational leaders (Bikson, Treverton, Moini & Lindstrom, 2008, p. 27). Leadership practices are highly sensitive in a distance relationship and require distinctive attention (Hoch, Andressen & Konradt, 2007). The latter suggest contingency-related leadership behavior is favorable for conditions of physical distance. Distant leaders also need to place particular focus on selecting the right people as potential team members need to have not only good technical but also excellent interpersonal skills (Horwitz, Bravington & Silvis, 2006).
A compelling book-length study on distance leadership was published by Eichen- berg (2007). The researcher looked at the question, how (1) spatial distance, (2) relationship distance, and (3) cultural distance impact leadership effectiveness. Spatial distance is described as the sum of time units of potential physical proximity and time units of shared time windows on a workday between leader and followers. Relationship distance is viewed as multidimensional, entailing elements of trust, similarity in communication behavior, and congruence of personal attitudes and experiences. Relationship distance, among others, inherits components of leader- member exchange and can therefore be seen as the reciprocal of relationship quality. Eichenberg (2007) views cultural distance as the combination of differences in context orientation of communication and differences in preference for power distance. The author found that spatial distance and cultural distance showed indirect effects on leadership variables only. Main outcomes showed, among other things, that spatial distance had a positive influence on relationship distance which can be interpreted as a negative influence on the quality of relationship between leader and followers. Cultural distance also showed positive influences on relationship distance. Relationship distance presented a strong negative association with leadership effectiveness. Eichenberg (2007) specifies that spatial distance has an ambivalent position in distance leadership. On the one hand, spatial distance significantly influences the relationship between leader and followers, resulting in a negative development, the further both parties are separated. He claims that one reason is that trust is more difficult to establish in a distance setting. Yet, a direct influence of spatial distance on leadership effectiveness could yet not be detected. This finding leads to the impression, that relational quality could be far more essential in a distance setting than originally presumed and spatial distance is ultimately a limiting situational component that can be overcome as such. The researcher confirms as?sumptions that an established relationship can reduce boundaries of physical distance. Furthermore, Eichenberg (2007) emphasizes implications of relationship distance. The emergence of a trusting relationship plays a far more important role in the leader-follower relation. Relationship distance that is high (and represented by a low quality of relationship) was found to be negatively impacting leadership effectiveness. The strongest negative effect was detected concerning follower orientation. In other words, if the relationship quality is low, people-oriented leadership styles can still not reach their full potential which in other cases would lead to an increase in performance and satisfaction. Eichenberg (2007) concludes that among the three distance components, relationship distance has the strongest effects and relationship quality may thus act as the essential tie in a working distant leader- follower relationship.
This work succeeds earlier considerations by Antonakis and Atwater (2002) as well as Napier and Ferris (1993) and understands distance as a construct defining the physical separation, quality of relationship, and extent of interaction frequency between leader and follower. Distance leadership is understood as a goal-oriented influence executed over physical distance, determined by the quality of relationship, and the extent of interaction frequency between leader and follower.
The following paragraphs discuss recent literature with particular focus on the delineation of different streams in distance leadership. Theory on e-leadership, virtual leadership, and virtual teams is processed.
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