Leadership Substitutes Theory

Being a leader often means rolling up your sleeves and doing the same job that their team is doing. This proves to a team that a leader has the experience needed to lead them through a task. The Leader Substitutes theory examines this process when it becomes an ongoing decision that a leader makes. What happens if the leader stays in the trenches and does the same job that everyone else is doing without actually assuming a full mantle of leadership?

Do Leaders Assume Different Skills and Motivation?

When a leader substitutes their own responsibilities for the responsibilities of their direct reports, and interesting phenomenon begins to occur. The leader actually picks up the same characteristics of their direct reports. They developed the same front-line skills, enjoy the same experiences, and are motivated by the same things. In essence, the leader becomes another direct report and leaves the mantle of leadership vacant.

This is not always a bad thing. Sometimes a leader must be able to prove to their team that they have the skills and experience to manage themselves effectively. When direct reports are used to micromanagement, for example, they may struggle to complete any job responsibilities without constant support from their leadership. By becoming “one of the team,” these dependent employees have a chance to gain independence once again.

The context of the environment is critically important. Sometimes leadership needs to be in place because decisions need to funnel through one specific channel instead of a democracy.

How Does This Help the Leader?

Although staying in the trenches doesn’t seem like it would help a leader out, it really is a good learning opportunity. It’s been said that managers manage, but don’t always lead. This is because they get into the habit of trying to directly exert influence over their team because the team has become a reflection of who they are as a manager. By utilizing the Leader Substitutes theory, managers can become more aware of the fact that their team has the ability to work independently.

Transitioning into this style of leadership is not always easy. People become uncomfortable around leaders who want to do the same job responsibilities that they have been tasked with doing already. It creates an awkward situation at times because some team members might even think that their job is at risk. By transitioning slowly instead of quickly into this leadership style, teams can begin to adapt to a more task-orientated, hands-on approach from a front-line leader.

At the core of leadership is adaptability. In order to be adaptable to all possibilities, leaders must be able to complete all of the aspects of a job responsibility that are required of their direct reports. That means digging in and doing the work together with a team instead of independently. As a long-term solution, this undermines the authority of a leader. For short-term Leader Substitutes theory practitioners, however, there are long-term gains to be had.

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