Scientist tears into leadership theories

Professor John Antonakis has built a career out of ripping into the sacred cows of modern management theory. Mike Levy reports on some lively exchanges on our sister site

“There are too many snake-oil merchants in the guise of consultants, trainers and management gurus. Very little of what they claim is supported by hard evidence, most of which has been totally ignored by those making a lot of money by selling models and techniques that simply don’t work,” said John Antonakis.

The professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Lausanne has carved out a niche as a champion of evidence-based leadership research ever since he wrote The Nature of Leadership in 2004.

Despite a mass of evidence showing that traditional carrot and stick methods are weak predictors of future performance, leaders still rely on them. Antonakis lamented, “Experimental evidence clearly shows that incentives can mess-up performance, creativity and other outcomes, particularly in high stakes situations. Incentives and performance are simply not correlated in many performance settings.”

A passionate advocate of the scientific method, in which theories are devised to predict behaviours and then tested against significant samples to see if the outcomes are as predicted, Antonakis has little time for management theorists who look at a group of successful companies or executives and then draw conclusions from their apparent similarities. “To find predictors of performance we cannot just study success,” he warned.

Some of the cherished models and systems that Antonakis dismissed include the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and the DISC personality model.

“The MBTI is one of the world’s most widely used personality instruments but it is a very lousy predictor of leadership ability,” he said.

“Practice must be rooted in evidence, and by this I mean scientific evidence and not testimonials and ipse dixit reasoning. There is very little science behind NLP and the MBTI. Why are these models, processes, or whatever you want to call them not tested much? They hardly appear in any serious scientific journals. The MBTI pops it head in now and then (and this very rarely); NLP is definitely out, yet it persists in the world of practice.

“MBTI ‘type’ theory and more so NLP are not taken seriously in the scientific community because they don’t offer any serious testable predictions… There is a very biological and scientific veneer to what the ‘neuro’ is in NLP. The term is couched in science, NLP apparently explains how biological and psychological mechanisms affect behaviour and routines, and behaviours can be apparently reprogrammed via NLP interventions. If NLP were useful, it would not have been abandoned by research psychologists, unless all of them have made a massive and repeated mistake, which I doubt.”

The professor’s demolition job on these theories triggered an epic debate on our sister site TrainingZone, in which he defended his stance and expanded on his ideas in response to points raised by adherents of some of these techniques.

Several members supported the Antonakis view, including one who pointed out that the idea of “scientific management” had been attached to some pretty poorly researched ideas as far back as FW Taylor’s work in 1911, which coincided with the development of mass production in the US. “It was not totally wrong and included many good ideas, but it divided people and created artificial hierarchies with workers at the bottom and managers at the top and management consultants even higher,” said “jocwjocw”.

However several TrainingZone members spoke up for Myers Briggs, arguing that even though the MBTI was often misused in recruitment and selection processes, it did have merit as a development tool. “MBTI stands out because it encourages the client to self diagnose more than any others,” said one trainer.

“Personality does NOT equal leadership, and the MBTI instrument is not designed to measure leadership ability, so, guess what, it is indeed a ‘lousy predictor of leadership ability’,” added “owensmiff”.

“However, if you want to a springboard to help you become more self-aware and therefore use this to improve your interpersonal relationships, MBTI is one of many good tools.” In what might be seen as a red flag to the academic, he concluded, “Surely it is the application and results that matter the most, not necessarily the science behind the theories when it comes to management/leadership?”

Antorakis shot back: “How many studies are there showing, in a true field experiment, that a MBTI assessment-development intervention improved the leadership effectiveness of participants?   I don’t know of any (and least, any evidence that is published in top-level peer reviewed journals).”

The young field argument
Antonakis acknowledged that many apologists claim that it is unfair to throw out the baby with the bathwarter for a lack of evidence to support emerging disciplines such as MBTI and NLP. This is what he termed the “young field” argument.

Using emotional intelligence as an example, he agreed it has not been effectively tested yet – but contrasted its conceptual foundations to Einstein’s theories of relativity. “EI has not yet been properly tested. We cannot pronounce verdicts about its validity because it is still a young theory. As scientists devised methods to test Einstein's propositions, his predictions held up so you believe there is still hope for EI.”

But, he continued, “There is weak evidence to support EI's viability and lots of evidence to show that it does not predict leadership. EI does not have the beauty, elegance, and precision of the theory of relativity; EI does not have strong theoretical foundations (and thus has little hope to work in practice). EI has been falsified. EI researchers should abandon their construct or go back to the drawing board and rethink it, leaving all options open."

Having used EI as the basis for his argument, he added, “As far as I am concerned replace EI with NLP.”

On the other objection raised – “well,-why-is-it-used-in-practice-if-it-doesn't-work; I-see-it-working-each-time-I-use-it” – Antonakis replied: “Well, voodoo is used all the time, so is magnet therapy, homeopathy, tarot-card reading and so forth. The fact that a practice proliferates does not mean that the practice works. If one is convinced that something works, one will process evidence in a way that confirms the initial bias.”

This concept is known in psychology as “confirmation bias”, where people focus on and remember “hits” but ignore “misses”, he explains.

“That is why science is needed to gather data objectively and then to use statistical tests to see whether there is a significant difference between hits and misses, or whether the treatment has a statistically reliable effect on the outcome.”

Which theories do have merit?

Having trashed ideas that so many management development people cherish, Antonakis put in a good word for the Big Five Personality Traits test and “good old IQ” as having stood the test of time. Other volumes that won his recommendation include:

  • The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig – "Read it before you read any other book on management. It shows that most of what we hold dear in terms of best practice is, to put it lightly, excrement".
  • Predictively Irrational by Dan Ariely
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; and
  • Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Reducing his own leadership theory to its absolute basics, Antonakis put forward the following formula:
Personality + ability + random error = leadership (random error being unmeasured causes of leadership)

Behavioral genetic studies have shown there is a strong genetic component to leadership, which means that it includes an element of innate characteristics that can be identified in valid personality tools like the NEO personality inventory (NEO-PI).

While questioning some of the methods used, he does think leadership can be developed, but this is where the snake oil salespeople prosper at the expense of scientifically tested methods. “Most well-written ‘research’ that makes it into practitioner journals or becomes [a] best-selling book is devoid of scientific substance and can’t be trusted.  Those best-selling books that are well written and based on solid science (eg The Halo Effect) are a rarity.”

As an academic theorist and general author, Antonakis accepted some of the blame: “They (including me) must learn to write in more intuitive and understandable ways.”

By bringing his arguments to trainers and managers and debating them first hand, Antonakis has taken an important step in breaking down some of the barriers to a better understanding of leadership.

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