HR Newswire sign up
Follow us on twitter

Feb 10, 2013

HR research making sense of leadership?

Research can be enlightening, but sometimes it just makes you dizzy

By Dave Crisp

Writing about HR and leadership means making time to check out the ongoing research that is continually reported these days.

As with every other subject, tons of studies are going on at any moment and researchers are keen to rush into print and add content to their resumés and websites. Not all of it is helpful, as one might expect, but there can be some fascinating reads nevertheless.

Following up on previous posts about how aggressive many CEOs and leaders are, I read an article in which a woman from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee connected width of CEO faces to better financial results. (Canadian HR Reporter first reported on this research in 2011. See 

Apparently the wider a CEO’s face is to its height, the more aggressive he is and the better the results achieved — or at least she believes this to be true of male CEOs but couldn’t find enough females to check. I hate to suggest suppressing academic freedom, but this seems so retrogressive on so many counts it’s hard to enumerate them. However, it does reinforce my assertion that aggressiveness is still unfortunately a poorly controlled, but key factor in CEO behavior, whether you believe that’s a good thing or not.

On the other hand, some of the more agreeable messages about leadership come with little or no backing at all, other than the word of the author. An example is this piece on that contains many points I regularly seek to make, but phrased as if they are simply random thoughts of the consultant.

A Fast Company piece does a bit better with some stats, but no clear research answers: noting 68 per cent of leaders would prefer not to have to manage people and that it’s typical for leaders to get stuck spending seven hours a week sorting out personality conflicts. But are these reasons to learn more about yourself and develop people skills, as the article suggests, or reasons to become more aggressive about not getting into personality issues and just demanding results as many bosses seem to do?

A little more reliable, with messages I’m happy to see publicized again, are two articles from Harvard Business Review and respectively. One searched out leaders with fatal flaws (a concept the authors expand on at length as I reported previously from their new book How to be Exceptional) and showed that even senior people can actually change to eliminate these problems. In the second article they detail a bit more about what it takes to be a good leader. I think what this shows is that when the rare book arrives with useful material, it is worth reading carefully rather than trying to sort out much of what appears in weekly ezines. When weekly scanning keeps turning up the same sources as best bets, it’s time to read those sources directly.

One exception worth reading regularly is the McKinsey Quarterly series where articles like this one about improving leadership by increasing Meaning Quotient fit in with the best we see in other research. They can usually be relied on to have thought through thoroughly what they publish and raise new ideas that others miss.

Some of the material out there is just plain hard to comprehend, more because of being written in needlessly complex language than because the concepts are difficult. I was disappointed struggling through this piece from complexity studies "proving" a fairly simple concept

It’s nice to have facts on one hand to support logic, but can’t we have it stated more simply? Maybe like this: “If you divide your organization into lots of layered, siloed groups, you risk generating a lot of ‘us versus them’ feelings and competition. That will harm productivity compared to a more collaborative set up.”

I don’t need to wade through this sort of wording: “In the second part of the paper, we explore from a critical perspective the implications deriving from these managerial practices and how these practices may foster conflicting relations with their inclination towards a positivist and reductionist approach.”

Nevertheless, if you keep trolling, every source eventually has something new and interesting. This summarizes a useful study that’s short, to the point and worth reading for new thoughts it’s likely to raise. In this case the authors make their own logical recommendations and quote similar ones - that managers with power need to be careful to listen better if they don’t want to come across as disruptively aggressive to their team members. Given their earlier report they might want to tag this especially for managers with wide faces! But it’s something very fundamental that everyone in all organizations needs to be aware of.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
Headline for your comment (Optional)
Name (Required)    
Email Address (Required, will not be published)
Comment (Required)
All comments are moderated and usually appear within 24 hours of posting. Email address will not be published.