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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS – What do Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and Steve Jobs all have in common? They are all great leaders who used their vision as a force of change. According to new research, the best leaders are visionary leaders — those who offer novel solutions to their group’s predicament.

“When push comes to shove, especially in situations when groups are facing a crisis, we don’t just want the person who acts and thinks like us — we want the person who has an exceptional, positive vision of the future,” said Nir Halevy, lead author and an organizational behavior faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Halevy, Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, and Yair Berson of the University of Haifa, define visionary leaders as exceptional individuals who use their vision as a force of change, and representative leaders as typical, in-group members who support and stay true to group norms. They argue that visionary leaders help people to be more open to change. The research is the first to provide direct evidence that when vision and representative leadership diverge, vision prevails, especially in critical situations.

The study, “The Mainstream is Not Electable: When Vision Triumphs Over Representativeness in Leader Emergence and Effectiveness,” builds upon existing leadership studies and seeks to answer whether people want leaders to be similar to the average group member or to be a visionary. To test their theory, the researchers conducted five studies that examined whether group members would endorse either a visionary or representative leader, and investigated the consequences of endorsing such a leader.

“To effectively manage as a CEO or leader, we found that you must evaluate the situation and context,” said Galinsky. “The ability to express a clear vision for the future is especially important when a company is facing a crisis.”

In the first experiment, researchers asked the participants to imagine that they were members in a Greek sorority or fraternity at their university and read descriptions of the final candidates for the organization’s president position. Candidate A exemplified a visionary leader, while Candidate B personified a representative group leader. Researchers found that the visionary candidate received significantly stronger endorsements than the representative candidate.

The researchers also focused on leader endorsement during crisis situations. In the second experiment, participants either read a scenario depicting a person’s apartment burning down, or read an almost identical scenario where the entire Greek organization’s house was burned down, thereby creating a major crisis for their group. Then participants read descriptions of the two final candidates for the organization’s presidents. The researchers discovered that participants were more likely to endorse the visionary candidate if they read the group crisis scenario versus those who read the personal crisis situation.

In another experiment, the co-authors investigated whether visionary leaders also exert greater influence over group members’ behavior compared to representative leaders.

“We discovered that visionary leaders not only help group members regulate their mood following a group crisis, but also inspire them to participate in collective action more than representative leaders,” said Galinsky.

The research appears in the July 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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