AuthorVan Wart, Montgomery
  1. Introduction

    The massive shift to virtual modalities and functions has changed the context of leadership and organizational structures, and thus how leadership is exercised (Government Business Council, 2015). Among the striking changes that the virtual environment has created are: the enormous increase in the overall volume and speed of communication; the constancy of communication; the great impact on the nature of leadership competencies (e.g., managing emotionally charged contexts at a distance); the expansion of communication channels that leaders are expected to navigate and master; and the importance for leaders to understand, adopt, maintain, and, frequently, use new, organization-wide technological systems.

    This series of shifts has had an amplifying effect with increased demands for rapid change in organizational environments, which in turn requires leaders to have expanded skill sets in both traditional communication methods and managing through virtual means. Further, while the opportunities of virtual communications and management are much touted, the challenges of achieving success in this new virtual environment are considerable. For example, personnel costs can be driven down by virtual efficiencies, but advanced information technologies (AIT) systems are expensive themselves, and technical staff may replace content staff. Physical distances are reduced in a virtual world, but this places greater communication and coordination demands on those in charge. Similarly, as social and interpersonal distance are reduced in a virtual world emphasizing democratic access to information and communication, expectations of leader responsiveness and candor are increased and expectations of leader privacy are reduced.

    While leaders have more communication venues, those venues require a greater array of skills. Although asynchronous communications have provided flexibility, they have perversely increased expectations of around-the-clock responses in many environments. Large-scale public sector AIT systems bring wonderful efficiencies when successful, but failures are commonplace and expensive (Anthopoulous et al., 2016). And while AIT systems create opportunities for increased reliability and security, the possibilities for system crashes and breaches become heightened. In the US, the Obama administration provides a good example with four cabinet-level secretaries having major AIT related issues, generally leading to their replacement. Table 1 provides a summary of the types of challenges faced by leaders dealing with virtual communications and structures.

    While this irony has been acknowledged by the leading experts (Van Wart, 2013), the field has been unable to make much progress. 'Although the potential impact of AIT has been recognized by leadership scholars and practitioners as important, what we know about the interaction between AIT and leadership still remains at the very nascent stages of development' (Avolio et al., 2014, p. 105). Reasons include: the relative newness of phenomenon; newness of field and the confusion over concepts, terms, and focus; number of factors to consider (see Table 2); and an inability to aggregate studies beyond the micro level because of a lack of a guiding theory or framework.

    The primary purpose of this article is to focus on the last of these issues, the lack of an overriding theory or framework. Avolio et al. (2001; 2014) have twice recommended the use of adaptive structuration theory to provide a model that emphasizes context, complexity, and co-evolution of agents of change and the structures that frame leadership itself. This recommendation has largely gone unheeded. This article seeks to provide a macro-level model adapted from adaptive structuration theory that not only includes the uses and effects on organizations by leaders, but also the factors of adoption (context) and leader/technology co-evolution.

    The remainder of the article is organized as follows: core definitions and literature; key propositions; methodological approach; empirical findings; and conclusion and overarching comments with study limitations.

  2. Theory building to date in fields related to virtual leadership

    2.1. Definitions

    The definition of advanced information technologies (AITs), sometimes called information and communication technologies (ICTs), include the internet (e.g., websites, YouTube), e-mail, video conferencing, virtual teams, groupware systems, social media, texting, blogs, document sharing, as well as a host of enterprise information storage and analysis systems, among others. It is important to note that AITs have very different purposes, including informing, interaction, planning, record-keeping, and data analysis. Some are meant to serve multiple purposes while others are targeted at a specific purpose. Following the leading experts in the field, we define e-leadership as a social influence process embedded in both proximal and distal contexts mediated by AIT that can produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior, and performance (Avolio et al., 2014).

    High performance leaders, 'good' (effective) at e-leadership, use a variety of advanced information technologies well, resulting in improved outcomes such as better performance, higher satisfaction, less turnover, etc. The leadership function can be expressed through the leader, followers, dyads, groups, teams, or even context itself. E-leaders also affect the adoption of advanced information technologies to take advantage of new advanced information technologies.

    E-management is defined as the process of using AITs to provide both internal and external management functionality. It includes the use of AITs in information management and dissemination, transactions in support of services, the provision of e-services, marketing and public relations, decision support, AIT system maintenance itself, among others. E-managers affect the adoption of advanced information technologies to improve services and/or implement organizational rationalization such as staffing and structure adjustments. Both e-leadership and e-management are important to today's leaders. We define virtual leadership as encompassing both arenas. Virtual leadership is constituted of those aspects of the entire leadership-management function that are performed through or potentially improved by virtual means.

    2.2. Theory in e-leadership and e-management

    Two initial types of questions are generally asked. First, what are the performance and side effects of virtual leadership--how much is performance affected by efficiency, cost reduction, satisfaction, etc.? Second, what 'virtual' skills, behaviors, and practices improve performance? A fuller understanding of the leadership process also asks questions about the adoption of AITs in the first place, and thus inquires, what are the antecedents of virtual leadership? This begs a challenging long-term question, which is, how is virtual leadership affecting the evolution of organizations, and vice versa? Finally, the issue that this article raises is: how do you incorporate these various areas of interest into a macro-level model that can provide a mental map of the field, as well as a tool for in-depth case studies? We briefly review the literature to date related to each of these questions.

    A major question regarding performance is the comparison of traditional and virtual teams performing under a variety of conditions--which performs better under what conditions? A much-examined area has been the identification of strengths and weaknesses of traditional versus virtual teams using different styles. The most common comparison has been transactional versus transformational styles (Balthazard, Waldman and Atwater, 2008; Kahai, Sosik and Avolio, 2002; Puranova and Bono, 2009), but other comparisons have been employed as well such as Theory X and Y (Thomas and Bostrom, 2008) and additional style conventions (Gonzalez-Navarro et al., 2010). While differences were often detected, the results were mixed and have more to do with the context in which experiments and field studies are conducted than the medium itself. Still another comparison was based on trust, frequently also with recommendations on how to increase it. For example, Kanawattanachai and Yoo (2002) find that traditional teams create more effective bonds and virtual teams tend to form more cognitive bonds, while other researchers have looked into the challenges of building trust rapidly in virtual environments (aka 'swift trust') (Greenberg, Greenberg and Antonucci, 2007). More basic research has been conducted into trustworthiness antecedents (Rusman et al., 2010), and trust in government teams (Bannister and Connolly, 2011).

    However, the performance of specific AITs has not been a typical research consideration (see Moon, Lee and Roh (2014) for a full review of the IT literature and public administration), at least with a leadership focus, and so with most AITs nonanecdotal data are fragmented or lacking regarding the effect of email, document sharing, etc. The major exceptions in the public sector are websites and online teaching, as well as social media for external purposes (Zavattaro and Bryer, 2016).

    2.3. What skills, behaviors, and practices improve performance?

    The research on the quality of virtual leadership implementation and the array of recommendations for the improvement of virtual leadership has been extensive. A good example of a practitioner-oriented competency list that has six elements is provided by Malhotra, Majchrzak and Rosen (2007). They assert a successful virtual team leader establishes a culture of trust through communication technology, ensures the diversity and comparative strengths of team members is appreciated, manages the life-cycle of the team through meetings and milestones, monitors progress via technology (e.g., dashboards), ensures the visibility of virtual members inside and outside of the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT