“Composites” are materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties that, when combined, produce a material with characteristics different from the individual components. The new material may be preferred for many reasons – common examples include materials which are stronger, lighter or less expensive when compared to traditional materials. The most advanced examples perform routinely on spacecraft and aircraft in the most demanding environments.

Similarly, composite leadership styles seem to have more benefits for both employees and the organisation as a whole. Servant leaders are just as effective as transformational leaders. New research by Associate Professor Dirk van Dierendonck of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) shows that combining transformational and servant leadership benefits organisations the most. A mix of the two will generate more commitment to the organisation among employees and will get them more engaged and enthusiastic about their work – even in times of a crisis.

Transformational leaders encourage their followers to perform beyond expectations: they emphasise collective values and needs rather than the values and needs of the individual. Employees like them because they offer an inspiring vision and are inclined to present themselves as a role model. Charisma is a primary tool of the trade for the transformational leader, who is seen as the centre of a process driving greater organisational effectiveness.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, focus on developing employees to their fullest potential. They rely on one-on-one communication to achieve their goals. Servant leaders attribute success to their followers rather than themselves.

Which is better? After studying around 600 people, Van Dierendonck found that employees are more committed and engaged when combining these two leadership styles, because using just one is one-sided. Organisations are made up of all kinds of people who respond to different leadership styles. Combining the two styles enables leaders to engage everyone within the organisation. This creates more commitment to the organisation and as a result, employees are more engaged and enthusiastic about their work.

Interestingly, studies also found that levels of engagement were lower for followers of either transactional leaders (leaders who focus mostly on concentrating on the task at hand) or laissez-faire leaders (leaders who leave their followers alone and shirk making decisions).

For most executives, the research above is good news: whether you’re able to summon up your inner Churchill or not when you face your next crisis may not matter. The Rotterdam School of Management research suggests that the servant leader does not appear to be at a special disadvantage in an uncertain environment, as other scholars have asserted. Employees appear to care less about the style of leadership than the substance, i.e., they require evidence that the person at the top is aware of the challenges the organisation faces and is taking action.

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