Implicit Theory of Leadership

What is leadership? Is it leaders’ behavior or our image of it? For example, if you are a female manager, how often has an outsider taken you for your own secretary? How often does that happen to your male colleague? This is what research on implicit leadership theories (ILT) focuses on. What are our ideas of what a leader is like (e.g., male, as further explored later in this paragraph)? Whereas prior leadership research has studied the leader and his or her behavior, scholars studying ILT have taken a different approach. According to ILT scholars, the actual behavior or characteristics of the leader are less important for finding out what leadership is than our particular ideas about what leaders are and what characteristics or behaviors they should exhibit. It has become clear that individuals are well able to produce ideas about leaders in general, ideal leaders, effective leaders, and so on, without referring to an actual leader they know. When meeting a person labeled leader, this image of a leader in general is activated. To illustrate: Imagine you are at a party and your friend tells you that she is going to introduce you to a friend of hers who is a top leader of a Fortune 100 company. Immediately, you will have an idea about this person’s attributes. For example, you might imagine this person to be male, dominant, intelligent, and so on. These characteristics do not come out of the blue. Virginia Schein has found that we often imagine leaders to be male, and recent research on the contents of our implicit leadership theories has found that characteristics such as dominant and intelligent are often named as typical for leaders.

Similarly, not only do we have ideas about leaders before or when we meet them, but, as the Robert Lord research group found, we also tend to label a person a leader who fits our ideas of a leader. This means that we are well able to say whom we believe to be the leader of a group we are observing. But we would be wise to be cautious: We can, of course, be mistaken. Leaders who do not possess “typical” leader characteristics may often mistakenly be seen as subordinates.

According to Robert Lord and colleagues, the implicit theories of leadership that are stored in our minds are often associated with the idea of success. When individuals observe a group and are given information concerning the performance of that group, they tend to remember more leadership behavior when told that the group was successful than when told the group was not successful. Remember, we are talking about different observations of exactly the same behavior, simply owing to differing information concerning group success.

Interestingly, this is a tendency we can also find on a broader societal level. James Meindl and colleagues examined newspaper articles and found that particular emphasis was put on the leader of a specific company in times when companies performed well and in times when they performed poorly. We all know this phenomenon from our daily lives: Just think about how often sports coaches are made responsible for the failure and success of their team and are, in times of failure, consequently replaced.

What effects do implicit leadership theories have?

What consequences does the knowledge that people have ideas about leaders have for organizations and their leaders? Judith Nye has focused on the idea that a match between followers’ implicit leadership theories and their leaders’ behavior may have an impact on the evaluation of their leaders. Nye and her colleagues found that once followers have ideas about leaders that do not fit their leader’s actual behavior, their evaluation of their leader will be less positive. This is of course important for leaders to know, as it can have an impact on their effectiveness with these followers. In addition, we have seen in leadership research that different followers may see the same leader in different ways. Implicit leadership theories can help us understand this fact. Birgit Schyns, Jorg Felfe, and colleagues undertook research on the perception of leadership and found that implicit leadership theories influence the perception of leadership. This means that implicit leadership theories, or the ideas we have about what leaders are like, affect what we see in our own leaders. This, then, can explain why one follower may see, in effect, a different leader than another follower sees. Taking into account how often followers are asked to rate their leaders, for example in the context of 360-degree feedback, the impact of such an effect should not be overlooked. Tiffany Keller reports another critical finding, namely that the match between the implicit leadership theory of an employee and his or her actual leader predicts job satisfaction.

Are implicit leadership theories generalizable?

In our world of diversity, intercultural cooperation, mergers, and expatriates, it is important to be aware of the differences in implicit leadership theories that exist among different members of the workforce as well as in different cultures. Laura Graves and Gary Powell found evidence that men and women differ in their implicit leadership theories. We also know from research by David Day and Charlotte Gerstner that students with different cultural backgrounds have different implicit leadership theories. The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavioral Effective-ness (GLOBE) research project undertook a cross-cultural examination of implicit leadership theories about effective leaders in 62 cultures. This group found that some of the attributes associated with charismatic leadership are considered indicators of effective leadership across different cultures, but the importance of other characteristics of effective leadership are different in different countries.

This research indicates that leaders working in different cultures may be confronted with followers who have different ideas about how leaders are and how they should be. This influences the expectations followers have concerning their leaders and, in turn, will probably affect their evaluation of these leaders and influence the amount of effort they are willing to exert to support them. Imagine, for example, an individualistic leader acting in a collectivist country. Strategies can be extremely successful in one country yet can trigger misunderstandings and even repudiation in another country. We can imagine that the idea of a leader in a collectivist country is more dominantly shaped by an emphasis on group identity than on individual achievements. So, because of such different implicit leadership theories, leaders may have different effects in different countries.

Summary and Conclusion

We have seen in this short overview that implicit leadership theories exist, which is to say that people have particular beliefs concerning leaders even before they encounter a leader and that they apply these beliefs to a person labeled leader. We have also seen that these theories develop early and are different for male and female individuals, as well as for individuals with different cultural backgrounds. In addition, this overview shows the consequences of implicit leadership theories for organizations. The following related issues have begun to be discussed only very recently.

The Future of Implicit Leadership Theories

Recently, the concept of implicit leadership theories has been broadened. In 2005, Reinout de Vries and Jean-Louis van Gelder introduced the term implicit followership theories, arguing that people not only have ideas about how leaders are, but also about how followers are. In a similar direction, Mary UhlBien has argued that individuals have implicit relationship theories. These theories affect the cooperation between, for example, leader and follower, as both enter the relationship with different or similar ideas about what such a relationship should look like. Brigitte Kroon introduced the idea of implicit organizational theories. Her line of argumentation has considered how these implicit organizational theories affect the start-up of a company—that is, how they shape our image of companies, as well as how actual companies are shaped by the idea of its founders.

These examples show how implicit theories in general, and implicit leadership theories specifically, have an impact on leaders, members, and organizations in general.


  1. Graves, L. M., & Powell, G. N. (1982). Sex differences in implicit theories of leadership: An initial investigation. Psychological Reports, 50, 689-690.
  2. House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Meindl, J. R., Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.
  4. 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, 360-375.
  5. Offermann, L. R., Kennedy, J. K., & Wirtz, P. W. (1994). Implicit leadership theories: Content, structure, and generalizability. Leadership Quarterly, 5, 43-58.
  6. Schyns, B., & Meindl, J. R. (2005). Implicit leadership theories: Essays and explorations. The Leadership Horizon Series (Vol. 3). Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

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