‘‘License to Fail’’: Goal deﬁnition, leader group prototypicality,
and perceptions of leadership eﬀectiveness after leader failure
Steﬀen R. Giessner
, Daan van Knippenberg
RSM Erasmus University, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Room T8-44, P.O. Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Received 21 December 2005
Available online 31 May 2007
Accepted by John Schaubroeck
Leaders who fail to achieve group or organizational goals risk losing follower endorsement. We propose a model in which leader
characteristics (leader group prototypicality—the leader’s representativeness of group identity) and goal deﬁnition (a maximal goal
that ideally would be reached vs. a minimal goal that ought to be reached) interact to aﬀect leadership perceptions after failure.
Group prototypical (vs. non-prototypical) leaders are proposed to receive more trust in leadership and, therefore, to be evaluated
as more eﬀective by their followers after failing to achieve a maximal goal, but not after failing to achieve a minimal goal. This model
was supported in a series of four studies including experimental, ﬁeld, and scenario paradigms. In addition, we showed that this
model holds only after failure and not after success, and more for followers who identify strongly (vs. weakly) with their group.
Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Leader group prototypicality; Leader performance; Minimal and maximal goals; Follower endorsement; Trust in leadership
Failures to reach organizational, group, or team goals
are often attributed to leaders (Lord, Binning, Rush, &
Thomas, 1978; Meindl & Ehrlich, 1987; Meindl, Ehrlich,
& Dukerich, 1985; Phillips & Lord, 1981). When such neg-
ative events are attributed to the leader, follower endorse-
ment of the leader is likely to decrease. Accordingly, the
basis for the leader to inﬂuence and mobilize followers,
and thus the basis for leadership eﬀectiveness (Chemers,
2001; Yukl, 2001), is also likely to suﬀer after a failure
to achieve goals. But do failing leaders always lose the
endorsement of followers or are there conditions under
which they might have a ‘‘license to fail’’ and suﬀer no
ill consequences after failure? This question is highly rele-
vant to our understanding of leadership eﬀectiveness,
because leaders will sooner or later inevitably ﬁnd them-
selves in a situation where they are associated with a fail-
ure to achieve group or organizational goals, and leaders’
ability to maintain follower endorsement despite such
associations with failure would seem critical to their con-
tinued eﬀectiveness as a leader.
To answer this question, we build on the social iden-
tity analysis of leadership (Hogg, 2001; Hogg & van
Knippenberg, 2003; van Knippenberg & Hogg, 2003)
and on research on goal deﬁnitions (Brendl & Higgins,
1996). The social identity analysis of leadership has
explicitly focused on factors that may give leaders
greater credit in the eyes of their followers, which we
propose may protect them against lower endorsement
after failure to achieve goals important to the group.
It has so far focused on leaders’ ability to mobilize
0749-5978/$ - see front matter Ó 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The research reported in this article was supported by a fellowship
from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management, Erasmus
University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, awarded to the ﬁrst author.
We thank John Schaubroeck and three anonymous reviewers for
helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.
Corresponding author. Fax: +31 0 10 4089015.
E-mail address: email@example.com (S.R. Giessner).
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 105 (2008) 14–35