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Antecedents to Emergent Leadership

Emergent leadership is often explained by referring to implicit leadership theory (ILT). According to ILT, individuals rely on schemas or prototypes, defined as “abstractions of the most widely shared features or attributes of category members” (Lord, 1985, 93) to simplify information-processing tasks. ILT suggests that individuals have a shared prototype of “the leader,” which comprises a set of attributes and behaviors associated with leadership. When followers perceive that an individual possesses the traits that match the followers’ leadership prototype, the followers infer that the individual is a leader irrespective of whether they hold a formal position (Lord & Maher, 1991). In other words, as Rubin, Bartels, and Bommer noted, “Individuals seem to share a common understanding about the traits that leaders possess and these traits are used as benchmarks for deciding on emergent leadership” (2002, 106). Although individuals can explicate their leadership prototype (e.g., Eden & Leviatan, 1975), the process of leadership emergence operates automatically, producing effects that are outside perceiver’s conscious awareness (Lord, 2005). Social Identity Theory’s approach to leadership (e.g., Hogg & van Knippenberg, 2003) makes similar assumptions, suggesting that in some situations a leadership prototype becomes salient, and that leaders emerge to the extent that others judge them as fitting the prototype.

Research suggests that the prototype of leaders, and therefore the benchmark by which potential leaders are evaluated, is similar across individuals within a given culture and context (Rubin, et al., 2002). The prototype generally includes aspects of intellectual ability (Lord, Devader, & Alliger, 1986), context-specific knowledge (e.g., industry knowledge; Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991), extraversion, emotional stability and optimism (Judge et al., 2002).

In this chapter, we examine emergent leadership within the selection process to an elite unit in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Although the context for our analyses is the military, we argue that the IDF is just one particular instantiation of an organization, and that our results could generalize to other organizations as well. In fact, our data are on civilians who have not yet entered the IDF and thus have not yet socialized into the military context.

In Israel, military psychologists from the IDF conducted research that aimed to identify the prototype of “the leader.” They performed in-depth interviews with effective leaders, soldiers, and leadership experts, and supplemented the results with job analyses to reach an agreed list of traits and behaviors that are required for, and expected of, military leaders in the IDF. This list has been formulated in a paper publicly known as “the officers’ attributes paper” (IDF, 2004). The list includes attributes that constitute the formal definition of the leadership prototype endorsed by the IDF, and is consistent with the research on leadership prototypes in nonmilitary organizational settings (e.g., Judge et al., 2002; Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991; Lord et al., 1986). In this study, we test if recruits with these prescribed attributes will tend to emerge as leaders. We focus on three attributes of the IDF’s (2004) formal definition of the leadership prototype that have been consistently found to relate to leadership effectiveness: cognitive ability, physical ability, and optimism. We briefly provide the IDF’s definition for each, and present research findings that support the link between these attributes and emergent leadership.

“Cognitive ability” is defined in “the officers’ attributes paper” as “ ... the officers’ ability to use their inductive and deductive reasoning” (IDF, 2004). In non-military settings, research found that general intelligence (e.g., Lord, Foti, & Devader, 1984) and industry-relevant knowledge (e.g., Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991) was a recurring characteristic attribute of a leader. Thus, we expect that people with higher general but also with industry-specific cognitive ability should emerge as leaders.

Physical strength: The officers’ attributes paper suggests that an officer should “enhance their physical fitness enhance their health, alertness . . . and ability to perform under challenging physical and mental conditions” (IDF, 2004). Being physically strong is part of the leadership prototype expected of Israeli officers. The link between physical strength and hierarchy is also supported by Connell’s (1995) theory of hegemonic masculinity (see also Chapter 14). We expect that people with higher physical ability will more often be chosen as leaders.

Self-control and optimism: “[T]he officer will perform under stress while exhibiting calmness, self-restraint, self control . . . and optimism” (IDF, 2004). Leaders are expected to be optimistic and not stressed, a finding corroborated by the literature on leadership traits (Judge et al., 2002). We propose that emergent leaders will be less stressed and display high levels of optimism.

To summarize, ILT suggests that leadership emerges because followers perceive individuals to be more concordant with followers’ schemas of “the leader.” We examine how four of these - general cognitive ability, context-specific cognitive ability, physical strength, and optimism - are related to leadership emergence. Because emergent leadership is a relational phenomenon (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007), using a social selection model is appropriate because such models predict the presence of social ties based on the characteristics of actors in the network. Our first research question is which of these characteristics in the individual enhances the likelihood of their being selected by others as a leader.

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