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Although rather sporadically, theory of distance environments has been covered in academic literature since the end of the last century (e.g., Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999; Kayworth & Leidner, 2002; Hoyt & Blascovich, 2003) with the first aggregated summary provided by Antonakis and Atwater in 2002. Since then, many definitions of distance leadership have been released providing synonymous terminologies such as e-leadership or virtual leadership. Predictably, a large stake of distance leadership theory was handled under the work stream of virtual teams.

Distance leadership is sometimes referred to as e-leadership (e.g., Avolio & Kahai, 2003; Avolio et al., 2009; Avolio et al., 2014; Pulley & Sessa, 2001). The distinctive feature of this leadership style is based on premises of technology-driven means of communication. E-leadership differs from traditional leadership to the extent that work depends largely on the use of information technology (Avolio & Kahai, 2003). Researchers declare e-leadership to be “a dynamic, robust system embedded within a larger organizational system” (Avolio & Kahai, 2003, p. 325). The purpose of e-leadership is explained as using relationships among members and enhancing them. The role of the leader becomes more proactive, with the need to establish social structures alongside which AIT is able to evolve (Avolio et al., 2001). Zaccaro and Bader (2003, pp. 381-382) identify the challenge for e-leaders in handling affective processes, such as the management of emotions and expressions, in a much more complex environment. Furthermore, leaders of e-teams must foster team trust and cultivate the team toward a stage of frequent interaction by defining roles, ensuring clear task distribution, and forming a shared understanding within the team. As understanding in a remote environment relies heavily on nonverbal cues, managing team conflict can be difficult for e-leaders. The leader will have to establish team norms and free time whenever social support is needed by a team member (Zaccaro & Bader, 2003).

In the German-speaking region, dispersion of the term e-leadership has mostly occurred due to the influence of Hertel and Lauer, according to whom the main duty of e-leadership is the integration of people with technology. This can only be achieved by influencing attitudes, feelings, behaviors, and performance (Hertel & Lauer, 2012, p. 105). The willingness of subordinates to be led might also be affected by a change in context, because establishing trust in a virtual setting is difficult. Furthermore, the actual physical environment of the workplace of a virtual team member (e.g., noise level within the office, various responsibilities) might be difficult to imagine for others. A frequent issue that arises is caused by overlapping leadership structures. Virtual teamwork is frequently set up as project work, in which the functional project leader is often not the disciplinary leader of the team, which may result in hierarchy issues (Hertel & Lauer, 2012).

The formerly stated definition declares e-leadership to be “a social influence process mediated by AIT to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior, and performance with individuals, groups, and/or organizations” (Avolio et al., 2001, p. 617). In their review Avolio et al. (2014) publish a refined definition stating “E-leadership is defined as a social influence process embedded in both proximal and distal contexts mediated by AIT that can produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior, and performance” (p. 107). AIT not only changes the way organizations interact with customers, it also empowers customers through the use of rating sites, blogs, and social media.

E-leadership is projected to have certain advantages over face-to-face leadership, such as greater flexibility, fewer costs for organizations and an easier way of documenting processes as the nature of electronic collaboration inherits the need for documentation itself (Hertel & Lauer, 2012). With a major part of leadership executed with the help of AIT, leadership will change into the direction of a participative approach where particularly self-managing employees become the focus of attention. Autonomy of followers needs to be promoted and, although e-leadership is still in its beginning, the interferences made by studies on flexible leadership styles need to be incorporated in trainings quickly in order to adapt to the new situation (Hertel & Lauer, 2012). Still, leadership and technology might not always coevolve efficiently. Kahai (2013) admits that outcomes of e-leadership might be positive or negative and therefore leadership styles beyond transformational and transactional behaviors should be considered. Information technology has the chance to either enhance or weaken the effects of e-leadership, meanwhile increasing transparency at all levels (Kahai, 2013).

Research covering transformational and transactional leadership in a distance leader-follower relationship has not been attempted to a substantial extent (Hertel & Lauer, 2012). The recent publication by Avolio et al. (2014) confirms that the understanding of the effects of technology advances on organizational leadership remains vague. Avolio et al. (2014) adjusted their definition to declare e-leaders to be “affected by time, distance, and cultural considerations in how they actively shape their followers’, customers’ and society’s views and use of AIT, and potentially the context that embeds them” (p. 106). The authors further claim that e-leadership reflects how advanced information technology mediates leadership influence processes. Avolio et al. (2001) declare AIT to consist of “tools, techniques, and knowledge [...] that can help leaders [to] scan, plan, decide, disseminate, and control information” (p. 616). By its name, e-leadership takes the emerging context within a technology-driven environment into account. However, not only communication channels affect the way leaders and followers interact. Avolio et al. (2014) emphasize the necessity of forming high quality relationships between leaders and followers. With this, the researchers incorporate LMX theory as a critical element into distance leadership research just as previously academic work has done (e.g., Golden & Veiga, 2008; Napier & Ferris, 1993).

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