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Implicit leadership theories and team dynamics in professional sport: a congruence analysis

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posted on 01.05.2022, 00:10 by Jacky MuellerJacky Mueller

Leadership is one of the most researched and heavily debated topics by practitioners and scholars alike. Different constructs and models for measuring leadership in sport have been used in the past; however, given persistent validity concerns, scholars have called for the introduction of more robust leadership instruments to the sporting context. Implicit Leadership Theories (ILTs) depict a promising alternative, as they are not only aligned with recent shifts away from leader-centric notions and incorporate followers’ preferences in the leadership construction process but also have been validated for a vast number of contexts and cultures over the last decades (Epitropaki & Martin, 2004). Despite over thirty years of research within the field of Implicit Leadership Theories (ILTs) and continuing interest in leadership perception, this avenue of research remains undervalued in a professional sport context. Billsberry et al. (2018) recently argued that ILTs should be placed at the front of leadership research in sport management and called to identify the most appropriate research method to elicit and compare ILTs in a professional sport context. To answer their call, a pilot study was conducted in which four different methods: interviews, focus groups, drawings, and pre-defined item lists integrated within questionnaires were trialled in a professional sport setting. Through analysis of 16 individual interviews, two focus groups with each 8 participants, two drawing exercises with 15 participants, and 39 questionnaire responses, pre-defined item lists were identified as the most appropriate method to capture and compare ILTs in a professional sport context. To validate the pilot study’s findings and validate the factor structure of ILTs in a professional sport setting, the fit of the most prominent ILT factor structures with the professional sport context was assessed based on 261 survey responses from professional athletes of 17 sport teams. The Epitropaki and Martin (2004) 21-Item, 6-Factor model did provide a better fit with the data (CFI = .930; TLI = .916; RMSEA = .052; SRMR = 0.70) than the Offermann and Coats (2018) 46-Item, 9 Factor Model (CFI = .781; RMSEA = .062; SRMR = .0838) and thus was identified as more accurately representing the multidimensionality of leadership in a professional sport context. Existing research on ILTs has focused on the fit between a follower’s leadership prototypes and actual observed leadership behaviour, thus knowledge about the effect of individuals within one team sharing ILTs remains limited. To address this paucity in leadership research, this study investigated congruence in ILTs between an individual and the group they belong to. That is, this research is the first study to conceptualise ILT congruence as a specific type of supplementary fit between the individual and the group. This thesis conducted separate polynomial regression and response surface analysis on each ILT dimension (i.e., sensitivity, intelligence, dedication, dynamism, tyranny, and masculinity) to enhance our understanding of the impact of the different ILT dimensions. Findings identified the tyranny dimension as explaining most variance in team cohesion, task cohesion, interpersonal cohesion, and in-degree centrality in advice and avoidance networks. While the relationship between tyranny and the respective outcome variables was identified as paradoxical, the second anti-prototypical leadership dimension, masculinity, was linked to increased avoidance and decreased advice structures. To demonstrate how the level of ILT congruence between an individual and the group impact team cohesion, network dynamics, and perceived leadership effectiveness in professional sport, six hypotheses were tested for each leadership dimension. Results of the 36 conducted hypotheses tests indicate that no congruence relationship between an individual’s and the group’s leadership prototype and team cohesion (H1, H2, H3), centrality in social networks (H4, H5), and perceptions of leadership effectiveness (H6) exists. Instead, other relationships between the leadership-related predictors and the respective outcome variables were observed. The absence of a congruence effect gave way to four key considerations. First, the importance of acknowledging not only supplementary but also complementary fit in ILT congruence research. Secondly, the relevance of extreme leadership ideals and a strong social identity in creating positive outcomes. Thirdly, the importance of power in predicting perceptions of leadership effectiveness and lastly, the need to increase the awareness of implicitly held leadership preferences to harness their benefits. It suggested that future research explores complementary as well as supplementary ILT fit in professional sport teams longitudinally. 


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  • Loughborough University London


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© Jacqueline Mueller

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A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




James Skinner ; Steve Swanson ; Jon Billsberry

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