Four hands with dress sleeves visible fist bump over a desk with work displayed.

Researchers Explore How Critical Events Affect Leadership

Four hands with dress sleeves visible fist bump over a desk with work displayed.When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, business leaders didn’t have much time to respond. They were immediately tasked with pivoting operations and reinventing processes to stay afloat or provide support for others. Some could step up to the challenge, whereas others struggled for their very existence.

In most cases, leadership — and the decisions that leaders make in the face of an event like this pandemic — can be the determining factor between business success or failure.

Critical events don’t necessarily have to be large-scale crises. They could be adjusting to the loss of a core team member, strategizing about how to respond to a competitor’s new product or dealing with the loss of a client.

A collaboration between Dr. Daniel Bachrach, professor of management and Morrow Fellow at The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business, and Dr. Frederick Morgeson, Eli Broad Professor of Management at the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, is a groundbreaking foray to delve into the implications of the fragmented, event-heavy reality of leaders.

This new research, funded by the U.S. Army Research Institute and led by Michigan State, will be the first to explore the implications of this “leadership as event management” concept. The two-person team was awarded a three-year, $885,000 grant from the institute, with two options periods that could extend grant funding to seven years.

“A considerable body of past research, including some that I have conducted, has shown that leaders structure their working lives around events, whether those are major crises, periodic ‘fires,’ significant problems or routine changes,” said Morgeson, a leading scholar in leadership research. “In short, leaders commonly find themselves in ‘event-dense’ environments, where success or failure depends on their ability to anticipate, respond to or create new events,” he said. “The global pandemic has really highlighted this reality, with leadership playing a key role in the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of different organizational responses.”

Literature on leadership theory hasn’t examined how critical events can impact leadership — and that it is rooted in assumptions, Morgeson and Bachrach said.

“In the real world, working conditions are dynamic and unpredictable,” Bachrach said. “Just because a leader happens to be good at helping employees navigate routine task demands doesn’t also mean that same leader is also good at, for example, helping his/her employees through a crisis situation or a system failure.”

Under the grant, the researchers will develop and test the leadership theory with experienced, practicing managers and leaders across a wide range of industries, settings and levels, which Morgeson believes could fundamentally change the way we understand leadership.

“From a leadership point of view, our research will tell leaders what to pay attention to and the possible strategies to employ when an event occurs,” he said. “From an organizational standpoint, our work will help prepare leaders and identify the types of leaders that are capable of dealing with critical events.”

Morgeson said the intent is to produce a comprehensive statement on the nature of leadership, showcasing how leaders can implement event-based management in proactive ways and become strategic creators of events — in addition to being more effective anticipators and reactors to events — which could redefine the future of business leadership.

“This grant represents a continuous evolution of my leadership research, integrating themes relating to different types of leadership and the different kinds of skills and abilities needed to lead in response to a range of different kinds of events, Bachrach said.

This story was adapted from a piece authored by Chelsea Stein of MSU’s Broad College of Business and another piece by Zach Thomas of Culverhouse College of Business.