Seeing Leaders

Leadership is a process that is, in many senses, in the eye of the beholder. When people join together for the first time, one or more of these people will inevitably gravitate to a position of leadership, as the other group members silently reach consensus on who the group should let have a larger say in the group’s processes and decisions. People generally believe that they know what a leader “looks like,” for they have a well-developed set of expectations about the qualities they expect to find in a good leader, and the qualities that they feel disqualify on from that honor. These expectations shape not only who people accept as a leader, but also the leader’s effectiveness, for leadership is a relationship, and if followers do not feel their leader is leader, this negative outlook will undermine his or her success in that position. Influence is easier when other recognize your right to influence.

What mental processes lie at the core of people’s perceptions of leaders and leadership? As sages have long realized and researchers have recently confirmed empirically, people do not passively absorb information from each new situation they face. They are, instead, mentally prepared for the task of social perception, with each new experience observed and interpreted within a context provided by pre-existing expectations, goals, plans, preconceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Are leaders intelligent or unintelligent? outgoing or introverted? task-oriented or indecisive? cooperative or Machiavellian? strong or weak? People readily answer these questions by drawing on their intuitive beliefs about leaders. These beliefs are termed implicit leadership theories (ILTs) because they are intuitive assumptions about the naturally occurring relationships among various traits and attributes associated with leadership.

ILTs and Leader Endorsement
Charles Lord has conducted a number studies of ILTs, which he suggests provide followers with a psychological standard or prototype they can use to distinguish between effective and ineffective leaders and leaders and followers. If, for example, a follower’s ILT maintains that a prototypical leader should be bold, energetic, and daring, then she will likely rate a gung-ho leader more positively than a low-key consensus builder. In contrast, if the follower believes that a leader should be considerate and reflective, then he will respond more positively to one who shows concern for others and deliberates extensively before making a decision. As the prototype-matching hypothesis suggests, followers evaluate their leaders and potential leaders by noting the actions and characteristics of the individuals in their group, comparing their findings to their implicit leadership theories, and then favoring those individuals who most closely match their intuitive conception of an ideal or prototypical leader.

Judy Nye and I (Nye & Forsyth, 1991) explored these ideas by asking followers to judge the leadership effectiveness and collegiality of an administrator with leadership responsibilities during a simulated performance appraisal review. Recognizing that different individuals’ ILTs may vary in their inclusion of one trait or another, we first measured followers’ beliefs about leaders using a series of adjectives drawn from Bales’ Systematic Multiple Level Observation of Groups inventory, or SYMLOG (Bales, Cohen, & Williamson, 1979). Followers used the adjectives from SYMLOG to describe their own personal view of an ideal business or small organization leader, and we determined their relative emphasis on dominance (active, assertive, talks a lot), social sensitivity (egalitarian, positive, extroverted), and instrumental control (analytical, task-oriented, problem-solving). The followers were then given the annual review materials for a leader who was described, by his or her own supervisor, as hard-working, competent, and creative. For some followers these materials suggested that the leader was strong on initiating structure, but for others the review stressed the leader’s interpersonal, socioemotional skills.

The prototype-matching hypothesis was supported, particularly for the socioemotional component of followers’ ILTs. An outgoing, socioemontional leader was viewed more positively by followers whose ILTs emphasized the importance of people skills, but less positively by those whose intuitive theories did not stress this aspect of leadership. The prototype-matching hypothesis was also supported for the remaining two dimensions—dominance and instrumental control—but only for men in the study. Men who believed that an ideal leader should be dominant and high in instrumental control rated the task-oriented leader more positively than the socioemotional leader. Some of the women, in contrast, rated a leader who disconfirmed their ILTs more positively than those who confirmed their ILTs. Specifically, women who did not emphasize dominance or instrumental control rated the task-oriented leader more positively than a socioemotional one. Because the discrepancy occurred on the two masculine-oriented power dimensions (dominance and instrumental control) and not the interpersonal dimension of friendliness, women may have been reluctant to use their ILTs in these domains as guides for evaluating a relatively successful leader.

ILTs and Reactions to Women Leaders

Do group members’ ILTs, coupled with their stereotypes about men and women, contribute to their bias against women leaders? We (Forsyth, Heiney, & Wright, 1997) examined this possibility by exposing individuals with differing views about women’s roles to a woman who used either a relationship-oriented leadership style or a task-oriented leadership style. The female leader worked with two men and two women on a series of group and individual tasks in a laboratory setting. The leader, who was selected from among the group members on the basis of her scores on a leadership test, was in actuality a confederate of the experimenter. In some groups she enacted a task-oriented leadership style, but in others she focused on the socioemotional side of leadership. Each group included two individuals who were conservative in their attitudes toward the role of women in contemporary society, and two more liberal-minded individuals.
As the prototype-matching hypothesis would suggest, individuals who possessed more traditional stereotypes about women judged their leader more harshly than individuals whose attitudes were less stereotyped. Conservative participants liked their leaders less than the more liberal group members, and they felt she would be harder to work with. Conservative participants were also more negative than the liberal participants when the leader enacted a relationship-oriented style. They felt such leaders were friendlier, but they nonetheless gave higher effectiveness ratings to the task-oriented leader. Moreover men exhibited somewhat more prejudice towards the leader.

ILTs and Being a Leader
Savvy leaders, recognizing the importance of being seen as having the qualities that qualify them to be leaders, carefully manage the impressions they create in others’ eyes. They do not simply let their followers draw their own conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses. Instead, they usually regulate their outward actions in order to project a particular image. As Calder (1977, p. 202) wrote, “to teach leadership is to sensitize people to the perceptions of others.”

The inconsistency between ILTs and people’s stereotypes about men and women, however, suggests that women are caught in a self-presentational bind when they take on the leadership role. For men the leader image-maintenance process is a relatively straightforward one, for the skills and qualities that make up most people’s ILTs are consistent with their stereotypes about men. Women, in contrast, must chose between enacting behaviors that are consistent with their followers’ ILT or their stereotypes about women.

We (Forsyth, Schlenker, Leary, & McCown, 1985) investigated this interpersonal dilemma in a study of ad hoc groups working on a series of problem-solving tasks. The members of these groups first completed a face-valid leadership inventory, and learned that they had been selected to be the group’s leader on the basis of their responses to the inventory. We told some leaders that their scores indicated they were a task-oriented leader who would be instrumental in helping the group reach its goals. We told others that they were a relationship-oriented leader who was skilled in helping group members work well together, and others that they had both of these skill sets. (When subsequently asked if they considered themselves to be task or relational, the leaders’ responses indicated that they accepted the feedback as valid.)

After receiving the feedback about their leadership skills but before actually getting down to work the leaders were told that to simulate groups that had been working together for a longer period of time they would be given the chance to exchange personal information about themselves with the other members. The information-exchange would be highly structured, however, with leaders using a series of adjectives to describe themselves to their followers. The adjective list paralleled those used to measure ILTs in other research, and included such qualities as powerful, influential, dominant, skilled (dynamism), self-disclosing, open, moving toward others (social sensitivity), and fair, truthful, responsible, and pleasant (social responsibility).

How did these leaders’ present themselves to their followers? Unexpectedly, they did not emphasize the strengths that the leadership inventory told them they possessed. Instead, their claims conformed to traditional expectations based on sex roles rather than leadership roles. The men described themselves as task-oriented, even when they were told that they were socially sensitive and responsible. The women, in contrast, described themselves as socially sensitive and responsible, but not as task oriented (even when they knew that they were, in fact, highly competent task leaders). Moreover, those leaders who were told that they were task-oriented were more confident when evaluating their chances of success as a leader. Those who believed that they were relationship-oriented leaders doubted their ability to lead their groups.

These findings suggest that ILTs and stereotypes about men and women can, in some cases, act as interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies that guide the self-descriptions and overt self-presentational claims leaders make to their followers. Men, even when they believe they are socially skilled, may nonetheless describe themselves in ways that match the demands of the masculine sex-role. Women, in contrast, may discount their task-oriented abilities in their self-presentations by displaying qualities that are more consistent with the feminine sex-role. These self-presentations, paired with the prototype-matching process described earlier, results in men being favored as leaders rather than women.


Forsyth, D. R., Heiney, M. M., & Wright, S. S. (1997). Biases in appraisals of women leaders. Group Dynamics, 1, 98-103.

Forsyth, D. R., & Nye, J. L. (2008). Seeing and being a leader: The perceptual, cognitive, and interpersonal roots of conferred influence. In C. L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Leadership and Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 116-131). Westport, CN: Praeger.
Forsyth, D. R., Schlenker, B. R., Leary, M. R., & McCown, N. E. (1985). Self-presentational determinants of sex differences in leadership behavior. Small Group Behavior, 16, 197-210.

Nye, J. L., & Forsyth, D. R. (1991). The effects of prototype-based biases on leadership appraisals: A test of leadership categorization theory. Small Group Research, 22, 360-379.

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