Virtual leadership usually involves the presence of a virtual team. Thus, it is difficult to delimit virtual leadership from those of virtual teams. Research on virtual teams however often examines team perspective on collaboration, whereas virtual leadership predominantly addresses the challenges from the leader’s point of view. Virtual leadership warrants reference in this work, as the critical factor differentiat?ing ineffective from effective virtual teams is inherently placed with the leaders, who claim a special position in developing and leading virtual teams (Caulat, 2006, p. 2). Virtual leadership is often used synonymous with distributed leadership (Gronn, 2002) which describes the goal of influencing the attitude and behavior of team members (Hoch et al., 2007, p. 52).
The success of virtual leadership largely depends on leaders’ capability of engaging in the leadership role. A survey of 129 organizational leaders revealed that more than 80% identified virtual leadership as a requirement for today’s leaders (Criswell & Martin, 2007, p. 7). Even a higher percentage (92%) specified that virtual leadership involves different skills than face-to-face leadership. Leadership is probably the most critical element in virtual work (Hambley, O’Neill & Kline, 2007a; Carte et al., 2006) and can be seen as a core competency of team leaders of today (Horwitz et al., 2006).
Leaders that are more flexible in roles may affect greater cohesion among team members and are more likely to perform better (Wakefield, Leidner & Garrison, 2008). The study suggests that the understanding of different roles of leaders is positively correlated with the output of the team. Leaders that can assume different roles in a virtual task or project are more likely to achieve greater team unity and cohesion than those that only assume one leadership role. Furthermore, if leaders inhibit and expose traits, such as mentoring, facilitating, monitoring and coordinating to the virtual team, fewer conflicts arise and performance will most likely improve. Building a personalized relationship between team leaders and followers is considered a crucial element in virtual leadership. Leaders further require distinctive communication skills to integrate distant team members and foster group cohesion (Hambley, O'Neill & Kline, 2007a). They also need to keep the big picture in mind (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). Virtual leaders have to provide a common direction for the group and set the vision (Hambley et al., 2007a). Further obligations include getting every team member on the same level of information. Leaders often function as initiator, scheduler or integrator (Yoo & Alavi, 2004) and urgently need to detect conflicts while initiating counter-actions (Hertel et al., 2005). Leaders often need to manage tensions within the group that might appear due to dependencies on technology and relationships (Caulat, 2006). Here, standard operating procedures might be able to facilitate tasks (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002).
Face-to-face teams are inherently more likely to support the emergence of leadership. They develop a more constructive work style, whereas virtual teams might come up with a more defensive style of collaboration (Balthazard, Waldman & Atwater, 2008). Thus, it is not surprising that empirical evi-dence varies by context.
Results indicate that effective leadership is related to team members’ perception of effective communication, communication satisfaction, and the capability of leaders to establish role clarity among virtual team members (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002). Furthermore, leadership effectiveness is mostly related to the mentoring capabilities of leaders. Efficient virtual leaders strengthen team members’ appreciation of goal accomplishment and value others’ contribution which in turn increases identification within the team (Kark & Shamir, 2002). Particularly, inspirational leaders seem to be of higher significance in distributed work environments (Joshi et al., 2009). The researchers postulate that working in distant contexts might result in reduced team identity due to physical dispersion and lack of community. In that case, inspirational leaders would have the potential to occupy the role of a substitute by establishing a collective mission and vision for the team.
In a study conducted by Kahai, Sosik and Avolio (2004) on electronically led teams, empirical results showed no evidence of participative leadership enhancing team satisfaction. Yet, participants had a more positive attitude towards participative leaders compared to directive leaders. Whereas in a less structured task a participative leadership approach is recommended, the authors propose that a directive leadership style is more effective when facing a more structured problem (Kahai, Sosik & Avolio, 1997, pp. 141-142). Weisband (2008) observed that in early stages of virtual leader-follower interaction, goal-driven aspects and directive styles are more promising, whereas in the emergence of the relationship, e-leaders may shift to more transformational behaviors. A positive relation between transformational leadership and organizational commitment among subordinates was established (Avolio et al., 2004). Furthermore, there might be value in the application of transformational and transactional leadership behavior to enhance virtual team performance (Huang, Kahai & Jestice, 2010).
The question whether external leadership truly adds value to virtual group work has not been answered sufficiently and opinions by researchers diverge. Some explain external leadership to be indispensable for virtual teams, since external leaders provide objectives and assist in establishing relationships among team members (Manz & Sims, 2001). Others claim that virtual teams fulfill their tasks self-managing and envision them as completely self-organizing systems, as control is difficult to exercise and might shift to the group members (Hertel et al., 2005, p. 82). As distributed teams are more task-focused than face-to-face teams (Zigurs, 2003) they might be more autonomous and act analogously to self-managed teams (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock & D’Arcy, 2004). The authors state that there is a possibility that selfmanaged work teams do not even require external leadership as they might benefit from rotational or shared leadership. Nonetheless, there are situations when a topdown leadership approach might be appropriate although transfer to group-internal leadership is important as team members need the ability to make decisions in the absence of a physical external leader (DiLiello & Houghton, 2006).