Is being authoritarian an effective leadership style during humanitarian response operations?

Past event — 12 September 2019

Kühne Logistics University
Grosser Grasbrook 17, 20457 Hamburg, Room Faculty Lounge

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Mojtaba Salem, PhD

Post-doctoral Researcher

Technische Universität München

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According to anecdotes, many field office leaders contend that humanitarian aid operations sometimes call for authoritarian leadership in order for humanitarian workers to more quickly adapt to the context and thus deliver better performance. Indeed, such type of leadership is often the psychological result of the operational pressures the field office leaders find themselves under (cf. threat-rigitity response), but, given the context, is it really also effective to lead humanitarian aid workers that way ? Based on theorising on human motivation, we argue that such leadership may backfire for those workers with a high intrinsic motivation to help beneficiaries (i.e., prosocial motivation) because it undermines the very autonomy that is needed for them to stay intrinsically motivated. However, for those with a low prosocial motivation, authoritarian leadership may indeed be effective. We test our hypotheses with a sample of 320 humanitarian aid workers from the field. While we do find support for the latter argument that authoritarian leadership informs higher task adaptability and thus performance among workers with low prosocial motivation, our conditional indirect effect analyses only reveal a non-significant (not the predicted negative) effect for the former argument in that authoritarian leadership does not inform task adaptability and performance for those who are high in prosocial motivation. The implications for the leadership of humanitarian aid workers are discussed.


Mojtaba Salem is a PhD Candidate under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Maria Besiou (Kühne Logistics University) and Prof. Dr. Niels Van Quaquebeke (Kühne Logistics University) since December 2015. In his research, Mojtaba is interested in applying behavioral leadership theories in a humanitarian environment. More specifically, he seeks to examine the impact of humanitarian leaders on the performance of humanitarian development and relief aid operations.
Mojtaba completed his Bachelor program in Business Administration at the American University of Afghanistan where he graduated with highest honors (i.e., summa cum laude) and received outstanding student leader award. In 2013, he joined Kühne Logistics University (KLU) and completed the Master of Science Program in Management for which he received the KLU Best Student Award (Class of 2015). Highlighting the under-researched issues pertaining to intergroup relations between aid workers, his master thesis investigated the impact of leader boundary-spanning behaviors on leadership effectiveness in humanitarian organizations. Mojtaba has gained valuable experience during his research internship with Hamburgisches WeltWirtschaftsInstitut. In April 2015, he became a research assistant at the KLU. Mojtaba is also Head of Projects at Research Institute on Leadership and Operations in Humanitarian Aid (RILOHA).

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Birgit Kappert

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