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The elusive qualities of leadership: leaders and decision delegates

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Organizational leaders in large corporations and government systems must normally operate with a number of ‘decision delegates’ who are not in any simple sense their agents, but rather have a legitimate scope to decide issues on their own, in default of the leader’s involvement. A rational actor spatial model illuminates some of the dilemmas involved in this relationship. In simple situations pairs of delegates will often be able to decide issues between them in ways that can exclude the leader from recognizing that the issue exists or being able to exert influence. Even if the leader is actively involved, how far they are away from their decision delegates’ optima and how they are positioned in relation to them will have strong impacts on where final decision outcomes are located in policy space. In multiple actor situations, leaders with positions inside their delegates’ Pareto set will be more influential than those outside. To maximize their influence in simple or complex situations leaders should be able to choose delegates so as to ‘play themselves in’ to influence on subsequent decision-making, but in many situations this may not be feasible. In general, leaders adopting strongly distinctive positions on issues will have less impact in fixing where outcomes occur when chosen by delegates acting on their own than leaders whose optimum point is closer to where decision delegates’ interactions would end up anyway, without their involvement. A form of impossibility effect may operate, making it difficult for a leader to simultaneously fix an outcome precisely, to restrict her delegates’ discretionary choices and to shift the outcome towards her own preferences in any distinctive way. This effect fundamentally underpins the elusive qualities of leadership, the difficulty in pinning down an unambiguous causal influence of leaders.

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