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Why Remote Work Changes the Nature of Leadership, and the Kinds of Leaders to Recruit in Startups

Erica Brescia, the COO of Github, a company in which 70% of the workforce has worked remotely for a decade, wrote in the Economist about how remote working is different and better. There have been many perspectives shared on remote work, but Erica’s perspective adds an intriguing detail.

Managers tasked with creating a culture of collaboration within a distributed team will find the profile of a leader changes. A recent study found that the skills and traits of successful leaders in an in-person, office-based environment differ from those needed to lead distributed, remote teams. Instead of valuing confidence and charisma, remote teams value leaders who are organised, productive and facilitate connections between colleagues.

This perspective raises the question, should leaders recruit managers with different skill sets depending on the team operates in the office or remotely?

I dug up the paper which you can read here and summarized the findings in a bit more detail below.

Many of our colleagues rise to lead through influence rather than authority, which is called emergent leadership. Typically, there are two ways to do this: by achieving goals or demonstrating leadership traits. These are called achievement and ascriptive leadership.

Ascriptive leadership occurs when a person demonstrates traits that we all typically imagine when conjuring a vision of leadership: being an intelligent, dynamic, and motivated person. The paper calls this ascriptive leadership because others ascribe leadership traits to a person by observing them.

Achievement leadership means someone rises to become a leader in others' eyes by their accomplishments and their ability to lead the team to attain goals.

In the real world, in the office, in person, a leader has an opportunity to show ascriptive leadership in many different situations, and team members pick up on these. Ascription is more easily noted than achievement.

In the virtual world, studies have shown leaders distinguish themselves “in logistical coordination rather than through expertise…” Monitoring team progress and coordinating team members also buttressed a leader’s standing. Achievement outshines ascription.

As your startup looks to manage the ongoing challenge of remote work, consider the two types of leadership that exist and whether the role is more or less remote. This should change the nature of the questions and potentially the profile of the leaders to recruit.