Critical Reflection

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The scenario explored within this reflection is a 20-minute in-tray exercise at a graduate assessment centre. My team (as opposed to a group, discussed later) of 4, comprised of strangers, were presented the fictional scenario of 20 characters stuck in a burning building. The team had to organise their evacuation, justifying decisions to assessors. There was no official correct answer, but skills were being monitored, such as team working and leadership.

Assessment centres are used as a fair and accurate method of selection (University of Oxford, 2022); this assessment centre was geared towards highlighting leadership tendencies, reflective of desires for leadership capabilities (Rosenberg et al., 2012, Kadhila et al., 2018).

As in-tray exercises measure a broad range of competencies, their use for selection is considered advantageous (Irawati, 2017); research on assessment centres suggests strong predictive validity (Arthur et al., 2003). However, impression management is often used by interviewees, particularly where desirable traits are firstly communicated by the interviewer (Weiss and Feldman, 2006), which in this instance, they were. This aligns with my past experiences of in-tray exercises; those who demonstrate relevant traits are progressed.

The use of this scenario to discuss leadership theory is therefore justifiable in that instances of leadership are present, qualitatively measurable and reflective of future performance. However, due to impression management, the validity of behavior is questionable and sometimes unmeasurable, potentially leading to false assumptions regarding authenticity.

Individual Role and Leadership

Initially, people were reluctant to guide discussion and our task lacked direction. This is typical of the norming stages of team development (Tuckman, 1965), particularly in unfamiliar teams. To mitigate this, I suggested we introduce a leadership role, satisfying elements of “team need”, attempting to foster team effectiveness (Morgeson et al., 2010, 8). Leadership that satisfies team need is harmonious with functional leadership, where ‘[you] do, or get done, whatever is not being adequately handled for group needs’ (McGrath, 1962, 5). I was elected.

By virtue of having known each other for only a short amount of time, trait theory may have helped to rationalise the team’s election. I exhibited behaviours characteristic of Erikson’s (2019) red behaviour type, meaning I am extroverted and task-orientated. Whilst some author’s findings on effective and valuable leadership traits (Mann, 1959; Lord et al., 1986) align with aspects of the red behavior type, Stogdill’s (1948) early research on the theory suggests trait relevance is situational, though in this scenario, my traits were arguably associated with effectiveness. As Uhl-Bien et al. (2014) would suggest, this initial relationally-based process combined with how team members interpreted me formed followership.

My rudimentary knowledge of leadership at the time suggested many employers seek what I now know to be charismatic and transformational leaders, two leadership styles which are similar, if not synonymous (Northouse, 2021, 188). Upon reflection, this can be justified in that current texts significantly focus on the “new leadership” paradigm (Bryman, 1992), incorporating elements such as charismatic and transformational leadership (Lowe and Gardner, 2001; Antonakis, 2012; Dinh et al., 2014).  House (1976) suggests a number of personality characteristics typical of charismatic leadership such as self-confidence, dominance and desire to influence. I molded myself around these characteristics, which felt natural, perhaps in part due to my red personality type. Undertaking impression management like this is congruent with charismatic leadership (Jung and Sosik, 2006); not only is impression management influential (Leary and Kowalski, 1990, 34) for followers, the conscious use of symbolic interactionism (Goffman, 1959) arguably shows an acute awareness of self, again associated with charismatic leadership (Jung and Sosik, 2006).

My actions as a charismatic leader were effective as the team began to look to me for advice, indicating trust and confidence, two of the effects House (1976) identified on followers. Furthermore, millennials are more likely to value leadership recognition (Ng et al., 2010) and potentially the traits associated with effective leadership. Having a pre-existing understanding of the company’s culture as well as knowing the leadership traits the company valued (a result of having volunteered for them as a Project Manager), my leadership and presentation of self was especially effective. Aligning traits with my followers’ perceptions of effectiveness, at least situationally, has significant benefits (Dinh and Lord, 2012) increasing leadership strength.

Interestingly, I was particularly self-aware that this alignment was not necessarily authentic, it was perhaps an exaggerated performance of self. Contextually though, impression management may have indicated effectiveness (Gilmore and Ferris, 1989). Nevertheless, I believe this alignment to be an effect of the assessment context; I did not feel the need to align traits whilst volunteering. There are therefore clear issues with authenticity in interview settings (Nunkoosing, 2005); effectiveness in assessment centres may differ to the workplace, and whilst impression management may indicate effectiveness (Gilmore and Ferris, 1989), it relies on the ability of a leader to manage their front, which if done poorly, will reduce leadership credibility.

Twenge and Campbell (2008) argue employees, particularly millennials, are more likely to have self-fulfilling desires and are less likely to be motivated by the ‘emotional and attributional appeals of charismatic leaders’ (Anderson et al., 2017, 248). Perhaps followers were conducting impression management and avoiding conflict to appease assessors, just as I aligned my traits to appear more effective. In this instance, to better understand when this might have taken place, I could have looked for signs consistent with authentic followership (de Zilwa, 2014), confronting traditional views that leadership is a one-way process. Alternatively, in typical workplace environments, I may ask for 360 feedback, creating space for authentic responses. Whilst there is evidence 360 feedback can be used maliciously (Campbell and Lee, 1988) and in similar self-serving ways common in young millennials, providing space for authenticity can create effectiveness in both leader and follower (de Zilwa, 2014).

Despite having been effective on this occasion by working well, unanimously coming to a conclusion in good time and achieving our goal, charismatic leadership relies on the relations between leaders and followers (Fragouli, 2018). In instances where there may be another dominant figure, or particularly where there could be withdrawn (Zaleznik, 1965) or isolate (Kellerman, 2008) team members, I anticipate I could become frustrated thus creating conflict.  Consequently, my effectiveness as a leader may begin to diminish as relational ties with followers break-down, losing follower trust, affection and acceptance (House, 1976). In these instances, social judgement skills, the capacity to understand people and social systems (Zaccaro et al., 2000, 46), become necessary, key for effective performance (Mumford et al., 2012). There is therefore a need to modify my leadership style dependent on context.

My philosophy with regards to assessment centres is that I must try to create collective achievement. This is more indicative of transformational management, whereby intrinsic motivation and follower development is stressed (Bass and Riggio, 2006), fitting the current desires of workforces (Northouse, 2021, 185), exemplifying its effectiveness. My leadership aligned with Notgrass’ (2014) findings, where it was noted that employees prefer leaders that encourage fair participation, value team contributions and recognise accomplishments. Personally, having worked professionally in a project environment for 2 years, I find Notgrass’ (2014) findings very applicable; my motivation is very much dependent on the outlined three factors.

Using more classical approaches, I would classify my leadership as having high people and task concern, therefore attaining “team manager” status, the most effective leadership style (Blake and Mouton, 1964). However, whilst this behaviour is ideal in an assessment centre, it may be unrealistic in the workplace (Garg and Jain, 2013). Gill (2009) compares public versus private sector leadership and how they differ, for instance, charismatic leadership in the private sector is more likely to yield stronger operational performance (Howell & Avolio, 1993), in part explained by Pawar and Eastman (1997) (cited in Garg and Jain, 2013). This again highlights the situational nature of leadership, evidencing many elements associated with effective leadership can be transient; leaders must be adaptive and respond appropriately.

Narcissism is too a personality characteristic related to charismatic leadership (House and Howell, 1992) and millennials (Twenge and Foster, 2010). Narcissism has been a challenge of mine in the past. Within this context, I had to consciously ensure narcissistic tendencies were tempered; I had been to assessment centres before, having completed similar tasks, and have always scored exceptionally. Whilst there is literature to suggest ‘a certain dose of narcissism is necessary to function effectively’ (Kets de Vries and Miller, 1985, 588), too much can eventually have detrimental consequences for followers (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006). This could have negated my effectiveness as a leader, negatively influencing assessors’ decisions. There is clearly a balance to be struck for charismatic leaders; Humphreys et al.’s (2010) framework provides helpful direction in navigating this course.

Team Dynamics

Throughout this critical reflection, I have exclusively referenced my task “colleagues” as collectively being a “team”. Huczynski and Buchanan’s (2017) descriptions of “teams” and “work groups” suggests teams are more collaborative with a greater focus on people orientation, therefore applicable to us as it is what the task required or is at least what the assessors likely wanted to see. Despite establishing a leader, contradictory to Huczynski and Buchanan’s (2017) idea of “team”, teams can have a single formal leader, though will benefit from shared leadership (Northouse, 2021, 463).

Whilst there are clear benefits to shared leadership (Morgeson et al., 2010; Bergman et al., 2012) that could increase effectiveness, I argue the constraints of the task/environment necessitated a singular leader. Discussed above, the team initially struggled from a lack of direction. However, particularly because of the time pressure and having no pre-existing relationship, arguably, without having introduced a leader who was able to encourage and guide the conversation along, it is ambiguous as to exactly how our team would have effectively developed over this short time, if at all. Rickards and Moger (2000) note this lack of explanation of how teams develop over time to be a fundamental limitation of Tuckman’s (1965) model. In fact, further models which may ordinarily prove useful such as Belbin’s (1993) Team Roles also present time-related concerns, situationally negating their effectiveness. Again, situationally, and to be effective/successful, this perhaps creates 2 key pressures.

Firstly, the leader must create a sense of urgency (Choi, 2006), be effective at influencing and have high competence and confidence, resulting in follower trust, acceptance and obedience, all signs typical of charismatic leadership (House, 1976). This ensures minimal conflict, enabling progression, though the leader must similarly exhibit confidence in followers (Choi, 2006).

Secondly, followers must avoid excessive conflict and be engaged in the task, conforming to follower types such as “conformists”, but ideally “pragmatists” due to their tendency to support the majority viewpoint but able to contribute effectively where necessary (Kelley, 1992). Critically however, followers may conduct impression management, particularly as assessors want to see signs of teamwork and adaptability as opposed to anything conflict related. Though not explicit to me, followers may have become “masochistic”, submitting but feeling discomfort in doing so; alternatively, it’s possible followers could have been “compulsive”, wanting to dominate but holding back (Zaleznick, 1965). This could potentially limit the degree by which authentic functioning is present (Kernis, 2003, 13); similarly, authentic followership may diminish, along with its benefits of increasing leadership and organisational effectiveness (de Zilwa, 2014). There is evidence to suggest authentic followership is at least somewhat intertwined with motivation (Leroy et al., 2014), so long term, it is perhaps not sustainable for followers to operate under such follower types. Exceptions to this may be where leaders are required to be more authoritarian for example, and therefore need followers to conform. Morally, I want my followers to be authentic as follower well-being is of great importance to me. Leaders must be conscious to this, particularly in specific settings such as assessment centres where followers may feel increased pressure. Data that supports this lacks empirical research though (Gardner et al., 2011), indicating a one-sided approach, with focus more on authentic leadership (Algera and Lips-Wiersma, 2012).

Practically, to progress through the stages of team development more effectively in less time-constrained settings, teams could undertake activities such as Belbin Questionnaires (1993), identifying strengths to drive progression. Alternatively, approaches such as the Six Thinking Hats can help teams break through the norm formation barrier (de Bono, 1985 cited in Rickards and Moger, 2000).


The experience of an assessment centre has provided a source for valuable reflection, indicating aspects of myself I was otherwise unaware of, allowing conscious and effective decisions in future bounded settings. In reviewing some of the available literature on the subject of leadership, it is clear what is considered to be “effective” is somewhat inconstant and is largely dependent on an infinitely large number of variables.

It has become evident that I possess a tendency to be highly extroverted and task focused. This aligns positively with charismatic and transformational leadership and has helped to rationalise the impression management I conduct. The context has also provided an insight into follower behaviour, and how as a leader, my approach should be adaptive, not just to followers, but to the wider context too.

On this occasion, I was offered the role, indicating assessors believed my leadership was effective, to which I would concur. However, appendix 1 contains areas for development, needed to improve my leadership capabilities.


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Appendix 1: Personal Development Plan

Objectives/Goals     What do I want to be able to do or do better?Actions     What steps will I take/what will I do to achieve my learning objectives?Success Criteria/Measures   How will I recognise success? What improvements/changes will I look for?Evaluation/Reflection     How will I measure my learning? How will I evaluate my success? Timescale     What is your timeframe for achieving this objective or goal?
Understand and implement different leadership styles.Research new leadership traits via self-study and implement where appropriate.Active experimentation (Kolb, 1984).Feel more confident discussing and applying different leadership styles relevant to situations / contexts.Ability to converse about and apply leadership styles.360 feedback.Nov 2022.
Improve relationships with followers to improve my social judgement skills.Ensure weekly catch-up sessions with followers on my projects.Followers might indicate increased trust, affection and acceptance.Followers might be more engaged and indicate signs typical of authenticity.Assess quality of relationships with followers.360 feedback.Aug 2022.
Mindful of narcissistic tendencies.Undertake self-reflection to monitor narcissistic tendencies.Utilise Humphreys et al.’s (2010) framework to alter behaviour before acting.Feel confident that I have not been overly narcissistic.Colleague relations will improve significantly.Reflect on behaviour to assess where I have been overly narcissistic.Assess quality of relationships with colleagues and ask for feedback.Nov 2022.
Share leadership and / or relinquish control more frequently.Allow and encourage other colleagues to lead on projects.Feel more comfortable as a follower.Feel more comfortable that other leaders can bring value.Self-reflect upon the instances when I have taken or could have taken a followership role.Nov 2022.