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Developing Strong Leaders

Strong leaders are the cornerstone of employee engagement and motivation.  Building strong leaders takes a significant investment of time, energy, and commitment, but the rewards are huge and yield tangible results.

The Seven Elements of Employee Motivation

In the last four posts, we reviewed the research conducted by Krüger & Rootman which focused on the following seven elements of employee motivation:

  1. Interesting and Meaningful Work
  2. Employee Recognition and Feedback
  3. Employee Involvement (Empowerment)
  4. Working Conditions
  5. Strong Leaders
  6. Company Policies and Environment
  7. Compensation[1]

Element 5 – Strong Leaders

We have already covered the first four elements in previous posts; therefore, this post will focus on Element 5 – Strong Leaders.

Krüger & Rootman conducted empirical research on 400 small businesses. Their findings supported what many other researchers have concluded for decades – that strong leaders are essential for employee satisfaction and commitment.[2] Strong leadership is about having the desire, passion and ability to proactively identify and address the needs of employees to achieve the intended results.

The Direct Supervisor is the Key

Strong leadership is crucial at every level of the organization.  However, research has consistently revealed that the direct supervisor is the key to employee engagement, satisfaction, and commitment.  This is true whether the supervisor is a seasoned executive or an entry-level supervisor.

Clinebell et al. cited the work of Yummarino and Dubinsky (1992) which asserts that the supervisor is one of the most important factors influencing employee attitudes about the workplace.[3]  Many other researchers have also consistently found that the supervisor-employee relationship is the cornerstone of employee engagement and motivation. Furthermore, the leadership style of the direct supervisor significantly shapes the quality of the supervisor-employee relationship.  For companies and organizations that want to create great workplaces, building strong leaders must be a focal point.

The Full Range Leadership Model

In the span of over a century, numerous leadership theories and models have emerged.  We will focus on Bass’ simple but rich Full Range Leadership Model.

Clinebell et al. evaluated Bass’ Full Range Leadership Model (1990, 1999) which highlights three foundational leadership styles:

  • Passive-Avoidant Leadership – Passive-avoidant leaders are those who take a passive stance in problem-solving, waiting for problems to escalate and explode and then reacting to put out the fires (Bass, 1999, p. 11). This type of leadership is actually the absence of leadership and is also known as laissez-faire leadership.[4]  It takes the posture of “let it be.”

    In essence, these types of leaders do not take the necessary ownership and initiative to get ahead of issues.  They prefer to hide problems and put their heads in the sand.  While this may seem like the easy way out at the moment, the long-term negative effect on employees and the organization is huge.

    If you have ever inherited operations that were previously overseen by a laissez-faire leader, you know first-hand that putting out these preventable fires takes a tremendous an unnecessary toll on the people and the organization.  The stress produced by this type of chaotic environment is harmful to the health and well-being of everyone affected.

  • Transactional Leadership – Transactional leadership is based on transactions or exchanges between supervisors and employees. In this leadership style, supervisors teach employees what is expected of them and use a system of rewards and penalties for behavior that either exceeds or does not meet the expectations.  Thus, the leader motivates employees through rewards and recognition for good performance and through some type of penalty for performance that is not up to par.[5]

    In this type of leadership, self-interest is what drives employee motivation.  Transactional leadership is the more conventional leadership approach and is used in many workplaces.  Leaders who use this approach take an active role in their organization.[6]

  • Transformational Leadership – Transformational leaders inspire employees to strive for something greater than their own self-interest. When led by a transformational approach, employees identify with their leaders and are determined to achieve the shared vision.[7]

The Qualities of Transformational Leaders

According to Bass’ model, transformational leaders inspire through:

  • Idealized Influence – They serve as the type of role model that influences employees to embrace and advance the vision. They role model the “ideal” behavior and use their sphere of influence to positively promote organizational values.
  • Inspirational Motivation – Transformational leaders motivate employees through inspiration. They demonstrate self-confidence, build trust, and earn respect.
  • Individualized Consideration – They truly care about employees as individuals. They get to know the aspirations and needs of individual employees and provide them with the necessary support and guidance to achieve their potential.
  • Intellectual Stimulation Transformational leaders challenge employees to think, problem solve, and consider innovate ways of doing business. The status quo is not the goal of transformational leaders.  Their goal is to achieve the bigger vision and mission of the organization through creativity and innovation.[8]

Bass’ Leadership Styles and Employee Motivation

Clinebell et al. surveyed 359 employees (with 194 responses received) to evaluate the impact of Bass’ three leadership styles on organizational commitment.   Their findings demonstrated that both transformational leadership and transactional leadership have a significant positive impact on employee motivation.

However, transformational leadership, which inspires employees to strive for something meaningful, has a stronger positive impact on employee motivation than transactional leadership, which is fueled by the prospect of rewards and penalties.  Contrarily, passive-avoidant leadership (or laissez-faire leadership), has a negative impact on employee motivation.[9]  The leader that relinquishes his or her leadership responsibilities and fails to solve problems is detrimental to the organization.  These findings are in alignment with many decades of leadership research.

Bass’ model is just one of many ways to categorize leadership styles.  The key takeaway is that strong leadership is paramount for creating an environment that motivates employees and promotes strong performance.  Leaders that are highly engaged and proactive in their leadership roles are able to motivate and engage employees.  On the contrary, leaders who are passive, avoid their responsibilities, and operate in a reactive mode create a demotivating and disengaging environment.

Strong Leadership is a Skill

The great news is that strong leadership is a skill that can be learned and refined over time.  Companies and organizations that are serious about employee engagement and strong performance outcomes can deliberately hire, develop, and engage their leaders to create motivating environments. They can employ a healthy mix of transactional and transformational approaches to accomplish the task.


The most important step in creating a strong leadership team is to hire the right people with the right talent for the right roles.  Get this wrong and the rest will be an uphill battle. Get this right and, while you will still need to exert effort in the development process, it will be a much more rewarding experience for both you and the leader.

Even if you already missed the mark on this important piece, it is not too late to work with the leader to make it right. How this will unfold depends on each specific situation.  It will take significant commitment, time, and energy, but the damage can be repaired.


Get crystal clear on what you expect, and transfer this knowledge to your leadership team. What is your organization’s vision and mission? What are your values? What leadership approach do you expect?  This is not about micromanagement.  This is about establishing and continuously reinforcing a clear leadership philosophy for your organization.

What type of culture are leaders expected to craft, promote, and reinforce? What are each leader’s measurable goals, objectives, and deliverables? Last, but most definitely not least, what does your leadership team need and expect from you?

Talent Development

Think about the mindset and skills that are required to meet these expectations and map out a talent development plan to instill these into your organizational culture.


Evaluate your leadership team’s progress in meeting the expectations and determine the appropriate course of action.  Have individual and group conversations with your leadership team members and their employees.  Observe their operations and get a feel for the environment.

Review performance data, customer satisfaction information, and other key performance indicators.  Avail yourself of a variety of assessment tools to gather additional insights.  However, keep in mind that data is only part of the picture.  There is always a story behind the numbers, and knowing that story is essential to making an accurate evaluation.  Getting input from the people on the front line is a good way to start understanding the story.


Give and receive continuous feedback. The open, honest, and supportive sharing of information will help you build strong supervisor-employee relationships with the leaders you supervise.  Having continuous conversations and interactions is an essential part of leadership development, yours and theirs.

This can include formal feedback conferences, informational conversations, quick huddles, and the use of technology to communicate. The important thing is to be accessible and to communicate effectively.  Feedback, if handled properly, is a great tool for reinforcing what is expected and for building leadership muscles and confidence.


Feedback is also an opportunity for you to discover the needs of your leadership team members and provide the necessary support to meet these needs.  Whether the needs revolve around tools, equipment, guidance, or emotional support, it is vital to uncover them and do your best to meet them.

It is also important to communicate with your leadership team your progress in addressing their needs. If you run into roadblocks, be transparent and share that information as much as you are ethically able to do so; it will go a long way in building trust.

Accountability and Recognition

As we have reviewed in the past, accountability is a vital part of performance management. Likewise, recognition is a powerful tool for rewarding and promoting great performance. These two tools are also available for building strong leaders.

Continuous Improvement

Leadership is an ongoing journey that will never end.  The moment leaders think they have mastered the art of leadership is the moment their continuous improvement and growth will end.

Great leaders are self-aware and continuously self-reflect, because human nature guarantees that they will make mistakes. We have all been there before, and we will be there again. The key is to learn from these mistakes and to commit to becoming stronger leaders because of them.

Developing strong organizational leadership takes time and effort, but the investment will yield high returns in terms of employee engagement, motivation, and tangible  results.


[1] Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii,10(1). pp. 59 – 72.
Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114. Creative Commons License.

[2] Krüger & Rootman, 2010.

[3] Clinebell, S., Skudiene, V., Trijonyte, R., and Reardon, J. (2013). Impact of leadership styles on employee organizational commitment. Journal of Service Science, 6(1), pp. 139-152.  ISSN 1941-4730. Retrieved from: http://cluteinstitute.com/ojs/index.php/JSS/article/view/8244. Date accessed: January 20, 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19030/jss.v6i1.8244Creative Commons License.

[4] Clinebell et al., 2013.

[5] Clinebell et al., 2013.

[6] Clinebell et al., 2013.

[7] Clinebell et al., 2013.

[8] Clinebell et al., 2013.

[9] Clinebell et al., 2013.

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