When random selection of leaders enhance group performance, what can we learn of leadership?

This year, I am director of a course on Team leadership & Human Resource Management. Organising 200 students, 21 Teaching Assistants, and 7 lecturers keeps me quite busy! In reviewing literature for the course, I came upon an interesting article from 1998 where the authors had examined effects of different kinds of leaders on group performance.

In short, what they found was that when groups leaders where selected randomly (or more precisely, by alphabetical order of last name), groups actually performed BETTER at a problem solving task than when leaders were selected by performance on a leadership quality-test (formal selection), when leader selection was informal (by ”whatever means you see fit”), or no leader assigned.

The task was a ”survival” task, where a group is given a scenario where they’ve been stranded in the wild and the task is to rank a list of items in order of importance for survival - perhaps you’ve participated in something like this yourself.

The researchers think it may be the case that the formally selected leader felt superior and apart from the group, which would have led to the worse performance on the task. Everyone in the groups ranked items individually, and had to reach a group decision on rank. In groups with a random leader, members rank decisions deviated less from the group’s than in the formal leader or control groups. So, the random leaders were more just ”one with the group” than the formal leaders. 

A very interesting find in the paper was the attitudes and opinions given from leaders and followers. The randomly selected leaders were seen as less legitimate than the formal leaders, the formal leaders enjoyed their role more, participants in random-leader groups were less satisfied with the decision-making process. Formal leaders considered themselves more effective. This is all rather ironic considering that the random-leader groups made clearly superior decisions.

They further tested implicit theories of leadership by letting (other) people answer under which condition they thought groups would perform better. Not a single subject though that the randomly selected leader-groups would be superior - so clearly the results of their experiment are counter-intuitive.

What the paper does not answer is by what mechanism did the random leader groups perform better? If it was just formal vs random leader then ok, the ”formal leader feels superior” is a plausible reason that they perform worse as a group, as the leader might have had unwarranted influence on the results of the group for example. But that does not explain why random leader-groups perform better than informal leader or no-leader groups - this was not really adressed in the paper.

Perhaps the randomly assigned leader felt the responsibilities of the leader role but less of the ”glory” possibly associated with being selected from the test, in a way that positively influenced results. I believe there are some leader behaviours that are positive for making group decisions, for example, making sure that everyone is heard; and some leader behaviours or effects that are detrimental to group decisions, such as ones opinion/decision having extra weight. Leaders were selected by scoring high on ”leadership”, not by having special knowledge of survival situations, and so there is no reason to give any extra weight to their opinion on the ranking of items. Whether this is what happened can not be judged by the paper as it did not measure this exactly, so I am simply allowing myself some speculation here. :)

In either case, this does not mean randomly selecting leaders is always better. It is likely that the nature of the task, a problem solving task that had ”one right answer”, matters. It is the kind of task where ”wisdom of the crowd” would more likely lead to a correct answer - it is however very interesting that a random leader was more effective than no leader at all.