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Physical distance and distance leadership

A problem arose when definitions of distance were compared. It was found that, to date, no generalizable definition of distance existed. Conversely, distance often consists of multiple dimensions. Antonakis and Atwater (2002) define distance to be produced by the effects of “leader-follower physical distance, perceived social distance, and perceived interaction frequency” (p. 674). As research has shown, in some cases, distance dimensions might even overlap with demographic variables. This work understands distance leadership 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. Yet, there is more to distance than included in the present work; for example, cultural distance (Eichenberg, 2007), or social distance (Cole et al., 2009) have been omitted. The study further excluded organizational culture, which was found to impact virtual team performance in various studies (e.g., Denison et al., 1995; Gray & Densten, 2005).

Another limitation arises with regard to the measurement of physical distance. An- tonakis and Atwater (2002, p. 684) define physical distance as how close a leader and follower are to each other. Adapting this definition, the present work attempted to evaluate leader-follower distance as objectively as possible. Geographical dispersion was investigated asking leaders and followers for their permanent office locations. Country and city were later entered into online software to compute the actual physical distance in kilometers. Physical distance measures, e.g., by Klauss and Bass (1982) were refused, as terminologies such as very close and fairly close appeared too vague and would have led to subjectivity of the variable. Although the sample was collected in business units of international corporations and requests have been made to send the survey to a fair proportion of distantly led followers, a large proportion of the sample contained followers led by leaders who were physically close (59.9%). This resulted in an uneven distribution of 223 closely and 149 distantly led followers. Whether leaders in this case are authentic distance leaders having only parts of their followers at a distance, is questionable. Howell et al. (2005) decided to identify a distance leader as one who leads the majority of his or her workforce from a physical distance.

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