Leadership theory at a third tipping point

November 28, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

Leadership scholars have recently suggested that the field is fast approaching a third ‘tipping point’1, 2.  Most now agree that leadership is far more complex than simple personality or transformational leadership theories – the first and second tipping points, respectively.  Modern research is now turning to process-models to explain leadership effectiveness at an event level3.  This means predicting how leaders will perform in specific situations rather than in general, e.g., in high-pressure decision-making versus day-to-day team management tasks.

This new approach marks a distinct departure from current theory and practice, where personality is seen as a ‘universal predictor’ of leadership effectiveness – regardless of the situation4.  This view has dominated leadership assessment and selection for the last sixty years.  For example, we often believe that leaders high in emotional stability and conscientiousness are effective in all situations5.  However, research has consistently shown that the relationship between personality traits and leadership effectiveness depends on the situation.  A leader high in conscientiousness might be cautious, deliberate and self-disciplined in a familiar job, but display very few of these behaviours in an unfamiliar job, when under pressure to perform (e.g., making unforced errors and acting aggressively).  What’s missing from theory and practice are process models explaining the underlying causes of such behavioural variation.

A neurocognitive leadership theory is a new process model explaining how working memory and negative emotions interact to predict leadership effectiveness in difficult, challenging or stressful jobs.  This new model was recently used in a study of Australian leaders with the results presented at the 12th Australian Conference on Personality and Individual Differences in Brisbane last week.  An overview of this model is shown below.

Neurocognitive Leadership

This neurocognitive leadership theory predicts that when leaders experience negative emotions before performing a difficult or stressful task; (i) these negative emotions deplete ‘limited-capacity’ working memory, (ii) causing a break-down in self-regulation of emotions and behaviour, leading to overly cautious or impulsive behaviour, (iii) and contributing to stronger negative emotions after the task, and (iv) ineffective leadership behaviours (i.e., passive-avoidance or aggressive reactions).  Clearly the tendency to experience a break-down in self-regulation has important consequences for the selection and development of leaders.

Our research clearly identifies the causes of ineffective leadership behaviour and provides a proven way to assess this tendency in leaders.  It also pinpoints strategies for developing effective self-regulation of emotions and behaviour.  A summary of our research can be downloaded here.



  1. J. Antonakis, D. V. Day and B. Schyns, The Leadership Quarterly 23 (4), 643-650 (2012).
  2. S. J. Zaccaro, Leadership Quarterly 23 (4), 718-728 (2012).
  3. J. E. Dinh and R. G. Lord, The Leadership Quarterly 23 (4), 651-669 (2012).
  4. S. J. Zaccaro, American Psychologist 62 (1), 6-16 (2007).
  5. D. Ones, S. Dilchert, C. Viswesvaran and T. Judge, Personnel Psychology 60, 995–1027 (2007).


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