City managers' leadership credibility: explaining the variations of self-other assessments.

Author:Grasse, Nathan J.


The concept of "leadership" is arguably one of the most studied topics in organizational behavior (Fernandez, 2005; Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Van Wart, 2003). For decades, scholars have attempted to understand effective leadership at the individual level and the relationship between quality leadership and success at the organizational level (for some classic examples, see Boyatzis, 1982; Burns, 1978; Kouzes & Posner, 1987; Stogdill, 1948, 1974; Terry, 2003). Even though the public administration literature has generated a substantial volume of leadership scholarship, our understanding of leadership both conceptually and as it relates to organizational outputs remains elusive (Van Wart, 2003). As James MacGregor Burns states, "leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth" (1978, p. 3). Therefore, our efforts to understand leadership must continue (Van Wart, 2003).

The public-sector literature has notably failed to create one unifying or dominant theory of leadership (Terry, 2003; Van Wart, 2003). However, it has produced a vast literature on a variety of different aspects of leadership (Van Wart, 2013). One particular path of scholarship examines the role of the transformational leader in organizations (Bass, 1985, 1990, 1996; Burns 1978). We build on this research by examining one of the defining traits of transformational leaders: leadership credibility. Namely, we argue leadership credibility exists when leaders are highly self-aware (Sosik & Megerian, 1999).

In this article, we develop a measure of a leader's self-awareness by asking them to rate their own performance and comparing these ratings to evaluations by their subordinates. We then attempt to identify characteristics that influence the accuracy of manager's self-evaluations in order to improve our understanding of leadership credibility. Our findings are important, as research from the field of organizational psychology has shown individuals who are aware of their performance behave quite differently than those who are not self-aware (Atwater, Ostroff, Yammarino, & Fleenor, 1998; Atwater & Yammarino, 1992; Sosik & Megerian, 1999; Tekleab, Sims, Yun, Tesluk, & Cox, 2008). Before turning to our model, it is important to review the relevant literature on organizational leadership.


The topic of "leadership" has been an interest to public administration scholars for decades, yet there are still many gaps in our understanding of what makes a leader great and the impact that leadership has on organizations (Van Wart, 2003). The gap in our knowledge may be related to the fact that as a concept "leadership" can be quite amorphous. As Stodgill (1974, p. 259) concludes, "there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept." This definitional problem has yet to be resolved in any coherent fashion, but there are reasons to be encouraged.

Scholars have long noted the general distrust toward government and hostility toward bureaucratic growth (Meier & Bohte, 2006; Terry, 2003; West, 1995). However, the fact remains that over time we have come to expect more and more from our government, making the behavior of individuals within the bureaucracy at all levels critical to the daily lives of so many (Terry, 2003). This has led some scholars to question the role that leaders play in organizational success (Bass, 1985, 1990, 1996; Burns, 1978; Fernandez, 2004; Hennessey, 1998). While many scholars (Fernandez, 2005; Terry, 2003) assert the importance of leaders in the public-sector, others question whether leadership truly matters (Boyne, 2002). Wright and Pandey (2010, p. 75-76) argue that "transformational leaders are expected to be both less common and less effective in public sector organizations than private sector organizations because the former rely more on bureaucratic control mechanisms." These arguments are typically founded on the conception of public-sector bureaucracies as being bogged down by political control, red tape, and low levels of managerial autonomy (Boyne, 2002). If this assertion is true, we should expect leadership to have very little impact on organizational success in the public sector. On the contrary, there is a growing tradition in the literature that focuses on how leadership affects the ability of government to provide high quality goods and services effectively and efficiently (Fernandez, 2004; Hennessey, 1998; Van Wart, 2003) and seeks to combine leadership practices and behaviors with organizational outcomes (Golembiewski, 1989; Schein, 1992; Church, 1995; Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008; Tekleab et al., 2008; Moynihan, Wright, & Pandey, 2012; Wright, Moynihan, & Pandey, 2012).

Research suggests that leadership does exist and, at a minimum, involves exerting influence on others (Bass, 1985, 1990, 1996, Burns, 1978; Kouzes & Posner, 1987; Terry, 2003; Van Wart, 2013). In an organizational context, leaders influence employees toward goal achievement through their actions and behaviors over time (Fernandez, 2005; Hennessey, 1998; Trottier, Van Wart, & Wang, 2008). Effective leaders can stimulate organizational goal achievement both directly and indirectly. For instance, leaders can influence or change organizational cultures for the better, as measured by the impact of leadership on factors such as employee motivation and mission valence (Wright, Moynihan, & Pandey, 2012), as well as employee experience with red tape (Moynihan, Wright, & Pandey, 2012). Employee attitudes and behaviors are, in turn, influenced by the culture of their organizations. The actions and behaviors of employees, along with the culture of the organization, add up to "more or less" organizational performance. These successful leaders are therefore referred to as transformational in that they transform the organization into something unlike it was in the past (Bass, 1985, 1990, 1996; Burns, 1978; Moynihan, Wright, & Pandey, 2012; Wright, Moynihan, & Pandey, 2012).

Kouzes and Posner (1987) argue that leadership, or the ability to influence others and transform organizations, depends on the level of credibility leaders have with their employees. They assert that the process of developing credibility involves 5 broad practices and 10 commitments (Table 1). They argue that when leaders practice these behaviors and carry out these commitments, their followers tend to believe they are credible. Credibility, in turn, enables leaders to transform their organizations (Kouzes & Posner, 1987).

Credibility, like a bank account, is built up over time through deposits in the form of the practices and commitments. Withdrawals from the account, in the form of negative reinforcing actions and behaviors, can be very costly to leaders and their organizations. The goal for leaders is to build the account in the form of employee commitment, which is absolutely essential for transformational change to come about (Kouzes & Posner, 1987).

The primary interest of this research concerns disparities in perceptions of leader credibility between leaders themselves and their subordinates. We explore the literature on "self-other" perceptions as a means for providing the reader with insight into this measurement technique, and the implications it has for leader effectiveness and development. It is important that public administration literature include research on the psychological factors and processes that might mediate the effectiveness of leadership efforts. Much of current work relies on assumptions about these factors and processes borrowed from organizational psychology, without verifying whether or not they function in same way across sectors (Atwater, Ostroff, Yammarino, & Fleenor, 1998; Atwater & Yammarino, 1992; Sosik & Megerian, 1999).


Arguably, one way administrators can work toward increasing their credibility as leaders is to demonstrate emotional intelligence, which includes the trait of self-awareness (Sosik & Megerian, 1999). Self-awareness, as measured using self-other ratings, is "integral to transformational leadership effectiveness" (Sosik & Megerian, 1999; p. 368). Studies have demonstrated that a leader's self-awareness has implications for a wide array of individual and organizational outcomes including employee self-esteem, satisfaction with supervision (Baird 1977), and leadership effectiveness (Fleenor & McCauley, 1996; Atwater, Ostroff, Yammarino, & Fleenor, 1998; Ostroff, Atwater, & Feinberg, 2004, Fleenor, Smither, Atwater, Braddy & Sturm, 2010). Unfortunately, while these perceptions have received a good deal of attention from a variety of fields ranging from psychology to human resource management, it is hard to be certain that the underlying theory will be applicable in public organizations (e.g., Fleenor & McCauley, 1996, Farh & Dobbins, 1989, Gibbons 1983, Froming & Carver, 1981).

To the keen observer, it should not be surprising that self-ratings tend to be "inflated, invalid, biased, inaccurate, and generally suspect when compared to the ratings of others or more 'objective' criteria" (Yammarino & Atwater, 1993, p. 231). While most people tend to have an inflated image of self, self-ratings are not without merit. Comparing how we perceive ourselves to how others perceive us can yield invaluable information for leadership development as it can indicate a leader's self-awareness (Sosik & Megerian, 1999; Tekleab et al., 2008).

A self-other ratings comparison can result in three possible outcomes. Estimators can be categorized as accurate estimators, over-estimators or under-estimators. Accurate estimators are those focal individuals (the person receiving the feedback) whose self-ratings are in agreement with the ratings of the relevant others. Over-estimators are those focal individuals whose self-ratings are significantly inflated above the ratings of relevant others...

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