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When does charisma matter for top-level leaders? Effect of attributional ambiguity
Academy of Management Journal
One stream of leadership theory suggests leaders are evaluated via inferential observer processes that compare the fit of the target to a prototype of an ideal (charismatic) leader. Attributional theories of leadership suggest that evaluations depend on knowledge of past organizational performance, which is attributed to the leader's skills. We develop a novel theory showing how inferential and attributional processes simultaneously explain top-level leader evaluation and ultimately leader retention and selection. We argue that observers will mostly rely on attributional mechanisms when performance signals clearly indicate good or poor performance outcomes. However, under conditions of attributional ambiguity (i.e., when performance signals are unclear), observers will mostly rely on inferential processes. In Study 1 we tested our theory in an unconventional context-the U.S. presidential election-and found that the two processes, due to the leader's charisma and country economic performance, interact in predicting whether a leader is selected. Using a business context and an experimental design, in Study 2 we show that CEO charisma and firm performance interact in predicting leader retention, confirming the results we found in Study 1. Our results suggest that this phenomenon is quite general and can apply to various performance domains.
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