Virtual Leadership Is Not the Same as Face-to-Face Leadership

Topic(s): leadership, teams
Publication: Leadership Quarterly (2009)

Article: Transformational leadership in context: Face-to-face and virtual teams

Authors: R.K. Purvanova, J.E. Bono

Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

Due to recent technological advancements, virtual teams (team members working together from different geographical locations using electronic communication media) have become very common in many organizations. Despite their many advantages, these advancements have introduced new issues that must be addressed.


One area that has received attention relates to the impact of transformational leadership on virtual team performance. By definition, transformational leaders are charismatic, provide a unified vision for their employees, treat their employees as unique individuals, and challenge them intellectually.

However, few studies have compared transformational leadership behaviors in face-to-face (where it is typically studied) and virtual work contexts. To address this gap, the authors (Purvanova & Bono, 2009) conducted an experiment involving 39 college students who led face-to-face and virtual team projects containing approximately three team members (also college students).

It is important to stress that each of the 39 leaders participated in both virtual and face-to-face projects. Interestingly, leader behaviors were not consistent across the two contexts. That is, leaders who exhibited transformational leadership qualities in one setting (e.g., face-to-face) did not necessarily carry these behaviors over into the other (e.g., virtual). Additionally, while some leaders displayed high levels of transformational leadership in virtual contexts, others did so more in face-to-face contexts. Thus, there was no general trend of leaders exhibiting more transformational leadership behaviors in one context.


Finally, transformational leadership behaviors were more strongly related to overall team performance in virtual contexts compared to face-to-face contexts. This is an important finding because it suggests that leaders’ behaviors may be more influential for virtual teams. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the increased ambiguity faced by team members in virtual contexts.

Therefore, face-to-face leaders newly tasked with leading a virtual team should be sure to emphasize their inspirational and motivational qualities. This will help them achieve maximum effectiveness.