Pragmatists are (not) the better crisis managers


The question which leadership style and which associated leadership behavior is the most effective has been a subject of research for many decades. It is clear that both the style and the expectation of leadership have continued to change over time. The “Step Model of Leadership” according to Hofert (2016) alone lists six different leadership approaches that can be identified over the centuries and are still more or less applied today.

By Friederike Theurer and Carsten Sura

However, determining the most effective leadership style is not an easy task. After all, the effects of leadership may not become apparent for many years. In addition, numerous different factors influence leadership and its results, making it difficult to correctly identify the exact cause and effect relationships.

Leadership comparison during the pandemic

A recent study (Crayne, M. et al, 2020) from August 2020 examined with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic which leadership style leads to better results in a crisis. The study was based on the CIP Model of Leadership (Mumford, M. D., 2006), which distinguishes between charismatic, ideological, as well as pragmatic leadership styles, and has been examined in a variety of works since its publication (Hunter, S.T., et al, 2011). The study first examined the leadership styles of the heads of government of Canada, Brazil, and Germany using the CIP model. As a result, Justin Trudeau was attributed a charismatic leadership style, Jair Bolsonaro an ideological leadership style, and Angela Merkel a pragmatic leadership style. At the same time, the outcomes of the corona containment measures in the individual countries were compared with each other.

Charismatic, ideological, pragmatic

The CIP model initially assumes that all three leadership styles lead to similarly high-performing outcomes (Griffith, J., et al, 2015). The individual styles are distinguished, among other things, by the way in which meaning is conveyed, the experience examples that are used for the respective argumentation, and the causes that are identified for a (current) challenge. For example, the charismatic style tends to create a vision of the future, embellish it with promising positive examples, and point out that it is up to people and their actions if this goal is to be achieved. The ideological style, on the other hand, is more past-oriented and glorifies this supposedly better time. For this purpose, it mainly uses negative experiences and examples in its argumentation. It sees the circumstances as the cause of the current situation. Pragmatic leadership focuses predominantly on the here and now and the current problem-solving process. Both positive and negative examples and experiences are used in the argumentation. The cause for a situation is seen in both people and circumstances (Bedell-Aders, K. et al, 2009).

Meaning conveyance and current needs

The study discussed here concludes that – measured in terms of the number of infected as well as victims – the pragmatic leadership style, with its respective way of conveying meaning, was able to achieve the greatest success. One reason for this is thought to be the fit between pragmatic conveyance of meaning and the needs that existed to date in the COVID-19 crisis. If there was one thing that could be observed in Angela Merkel’s now soon-to-be-ended 16-year reign, it was often this pragmatic fit of a decision with the moment in which it was made – with little looking back or forward. A fact that earned her much criticism as well as respect, and the results of which would need to be evaluated elsewhere in their entirety.

The aforementioned study (Crayne, M. et al, 2020) also points out that its findings cannot be generalized and that pragmatic leadership should not necessarily always be given preference in the event of a crisis. After all, the effectiveness of leadership in the CIP model is influenced by a variety of other factors, including the closeness or distance between the leadership and its followers (Griffith, J.A. et al, 2018). Further research is therefore necessary to determine whether a particular leadership style actually produces better crisis managers.