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Implicit Leadership Theories:

A Leader who Builds Followership

Laura Wake-Ramos
The Pennsylvania State University

CAS 450W

May 20
, 2013


In my course paper, I explore the attributes and behavior that
followers expect of effective leaders. A leader label does not guarantee
follower acceptance of leader directives or suggestions. According to
Implicit Leadership Theories (ILT), followers may hold a more specific
cognitive category for a leader worthy of influence (LWI). These studies
indicate that followers have certain expectations of leaders.
The leadership categorization theory proposed by Lord and his
associates in 1985 places emphasis on the cognitive and perceptual
processes and underlying leadership and the role of employees prior
expectations and cognitive prototypes in shaping their perceptions of
managerial behavior (Martin & Epitropaki, 2011). ILTs represent pre-
existing cognitive structures or prototypes specifying traits and behavior
that followers expect from leaders stored in memory, that are then
activated through communication interactions. Leadership can be
recognized from qualities and behaviors revealed through interactions, or
inferred from the outcomes of salient events. ILTs do not represent
objective reality, but rather perceptual abstractions that followers use to
categorize individuals in leadership positions.
These perceived notions about traits and behaviors are typically
associated with categories of leadership. The leader-label does not
necessarily guarantee follower acceptance of leader influence; rather, a
leader earns the right to be influential. This process of influences is
emphasized as a two-way influence process between leaders and
followers. In social exchange terms, the person in the role of leader fulfills
expectations and achieves group goals, by providing psychological and
material rewards for others (Blascovich & Renney, 1996). Therefore,
exploring the exact nature of followers expectations is critical to
developing a more comprehensive understanding of social influence.

Previous studies of ILTs have sought to identify prototypical
categories that identify an individual as an effective leader. These studies
found that people use behavioral categories (e.g., honest and decisive)
to differentiate between leaders and non-leaders, effective and
ineffective leaders, specific types of leaders (e.g., political and
educational), and appointed versus elected leader expectations
(Blascovich & Renney, 1996). Once a stimulus person is categorized as a
leader, the activated leader prototype causes followers to attend
selectively to, encode, and retrieve situational information and
information that does not exist. Empirical studies support this model of
categorization to simple heuristics that may operate during leadership
perception. In these studies, peoples descriptions of a category (e.g.,
leader worthy of influence) reflects underlying category prototypes
whether the most typical or representative examples of the category.
These prototypes can be identified in communicable terms, which are
memory stored. Categorization systems occur naturally, organized
hierarchically, and include vertical, as well as horizontal dimensions within
the realm of the human mind. Past studies hoped to layout a map of the
categorization in processes of establishing a leader worthy of influence.
A typical study of ILTs aims at gathering prototypical categories
associated to a leader worthy of influence, and hierarchical ranked of
importance. These prototypes are identified for the study by surveying a
large number of individuals to describe the term leader. A few of these
terms are funny, caring, interested, truthful, imaginative,
knowledgeable, responsible, well-spoken, active, determined,
aggressive, honest, popular, enthusiastic, risk-taking,
independent, clean-cut, considerate, and authoritative.
The results of ILTs studies suggest that leaders must meet the
followers expectations of the categories for them to be identified as

worthy of influence. Leadership and followership processes must be
synchronized to meet these expectations in a specific group. Situational
factors can potentially affect leader categorization; however, the studies
of interest sought to reach a basic-level behavior and traits for a leader to
meet expectations and be influential in group communication processes.
These typical categories of prototypes become ideals or specific
exemplars for effective leadership. Once people form an impression of a
leader as being worthy of influence, they report that they will be more
likely to allow that person greater latitude for influence.
The ILTs perspective has advantages. First, the expectations
of leaders fall into communicable and recognizable categories. Ideas
such as honesty or knoledgeability are identifiable to most individuals.
Because these processes are simplified, they are easily applicable and
practical to apply in everyday concepts. Second, the studies imply that
influential leaders are shaped through cognitive and social processes
rather exist pure form. Every individual has the capacity to grow and
become a more effective leader, and group participant. Third, ILTs
suggests that leaders do not have the ultimate power of influence, but
rather leadership and followership are equal processes.
The ILTs perspective has its disadvantages. First, terms such as
honesty and knowledgeability while identifiable are not as easily
definable. The definitions of these abstract perceptions vary by
individuals past experiences. It is difficult for authors of empirical studies
to create hard and fast criteria for such categories, and monitor how
participants identify each prototype. Second, these categories are
created to suggest effective leadership; however, the studies do not
reveal how far the degree of effectiveness or ineffectiveness can be
applied. Once again, the idea of effectiveness or ineffectiveness can
vary from individual to individual. Third, certain attributes usually regarded

as favorable (e.g., sensitivity, intelligence, dedication, and charisma)
could receive higher prototypical ratings than the commonly regarded
unfavorable ones (e.g., tyranny and masculinity) (Schyns & Schilling, 2011).
The studies suggest that leaders in general are seen as effective with
prototypical attributes that are all favorable and, therefore, linked to
effectiveness. However, there are unfavorable attributes linked to
The categorization of leaders in prototypical and
communicable terms are widely spread into an entire industry. Countless
books and self-improvement programs focus on recognizing and
developing the qualities these categories embodied in leaders. The
danger of recognizing these categories is that producers can organize
these categories into formulae, such as 20 simple steps to become a
better leader, which becomes a popular trend. As a result, the value of
leaders; traits and behavior diminish, because everyone else is trying to
develop these qualities, which was before an invaluable and respectable
The knowledge of ILTs can be useful for leaders and help
them overcome the problem of influencing followers who hold ineffective
ILTs prototypes. Followers view certain characterisitics as effective, certain
characteristics as ineffective, and each of these characteristics may vary
by situation. In group contests, the role of the leader is to be able to
recognize, understand, and satisfy these needs and expectations.
Leaders then can inspire hard work and dedication (Harrel, 2003).
In simplified terms, the leader is one that fulfills a need to a situation.
ILTs suggest that a leader satisfies a certain need of the group, which did
not exist before. This could be variety of traits or behaviors identified
through research, such as charisma, knowledgeable, organized, team

player, authoritarian, or sensitivity. This trait of an individual is then
recognized and accepted by followers.
There is little research that studies the leadership in informal group
settings, which leadership emerges rather than is appointed, according to
Blascovich and Kenney (1996). Blascovich and Kenney propose that
followers hold certain expectations, and search for these qualities within
each of these individuals as according to ILTs. Then, the follower
recognizes, and is able to identify a leader of the group based on the
hierarchical and varied categories identified as leadership qualities. The
one perceived as a leader then becomes worthy of influence, and based
on the assumption that these traits are universal through communication
interactions and situations, all individuals of the group perceive the leader
worthy of influence similarly.
This kind of research is difficult to study, because groups vary by
setting, task, and individuals. Gregory Aarons and David Sommerfeld
(2012) conducted a research study that analyzed transformational
leadership of innovation teams within a mental health and social services
organization. The results revealed that transformational leadership was
more predictive of innovation during implementation, whereas leader-
member exchange was more predictive of innovation during usual
services. However, such findings could vary by organizational contexts of
similar services, or even vary by profession, such as an architecture task
group, for example.
In conclusion, the ILTs suggests that one cannot build leadership,
but rather followership. An effective leader meets the expectations and
needs of the followers, and cannot establish oneself as a leader worthy of
influence unless one is accepted in the group as a leader with particular


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Blascovich, J., Kenney R., et al. (1996). Implicit leadership theories:
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Harrel, K. (2003). The Attitude of Leadership. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &
Sons, Inc.
Martin, R., & Epitropaki, O. (2011). Role of organizational identification on
implicit leadership theories (ILTs), transformational leadership and
work attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 4, 247-262.
Schyns, B., & Schilling, J. (2011). Implicit leadership theories: Think Leader,
think effective? Journal of Management Inquiry, 20, 141-150.