Transforming the Salesforce with Leadership

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Traditionally, leadership has been described as the ability of a superior to influence the behavior of subordinates and persuade them to willingly follow a desired course of action. The leader’s task is to unite all assigned personnel in an organization and coordinate them in an effort to achieve sought-after results.

From one viewpoint, leaders are leaders, whether they manage sales personnel, production specialists, administrators, engineers, nurses, basketball players, or any other group of employees. On the other hand, many of those who manage and lead sales managers and salespeople suggest that sales personnel are different, distinct enough from their counterparts in other departments to benefit from a unique form of leadership.

But why are salespeople different from other employees? And what is this unique form of leadership? These questions are the focus of this article.

Why Are Salespeople Different?

  • Salespeople are isolated and independent. In most cases, salespeople are physically and psychologically separated from others in the organization. Because sales-people usually work alone, they may have no one with whom to share the disappointment of the lost order, the frustration of the delayed shipment, or the exhilaration of the well-earned sale. Although most salespeople want independence and personal freedom, it is likely that the lack of peer-group cohesion as well as infrequent feedback from superiors may be counterproductive. The field sales manager, the salesperson’s major contact with the company, is often the one person the salesperson needs for individual attention. He or she is especially important when salespeople are compelled to conform to strict policies or engage in activities that they may not like, such as cold canvassing, straight commissions, or excessive travel, all of which can increasingly discourage them, especially when results are poor.
  • Salespeople are in a glass cage. Selling involves the interaction of various people — salespeople, sales managers, customers, prospects, competitors, and suppliers — who may mix with each other in unpredictable ways. Since selling is not as routinized and standardized as other functions, it is a desirable occupation for many people. In a survey of 850 salespeople employed by manufacturers’ agents to select the condition that was most important in motivating them to do their best work, 86 percent replied that they wanted “to do their own thing” with a minimum of supervision and control.1

But it is the field sales manager, the leader, who establishes, monitors, and enforces standards and expectations of performance and behavior.


1. D. Berry and K. Abrahansen, “The Types of Salesmen to Understand and Motivate, ” Industrial Marketing Management, July 1981, pp. 207–218.

2. Wall Street Journal, 10 September 1991, p. 1.

3. Wall Street Journal, 24 September 1991, p. 1.

4. J.M. Burns, leadership(New York: Harper & Row, 1978); and B.M. Bass, Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations (New York: Free Press, 1985).

5. J.S. Selvaggi and a staff of University of Maryland faculty members, “CEO Leadership Profiles in High-Technology Firms” (College Park, Maryland: Working Paper, 28 September 1991).

6. J.D. Clopton,”Becoming Proactive about Recruitment,” Sales and Marketing Management,September 1992, pp. 93–97.

7. Bass (1985).

8. W. Rodgers,Think (New York: Stein & Day, 1972).

9. G. Graen, M.A. Novak, and P. Sommersamp, “The Effects of Leader-Member Exchange and Job Design on Productivity and Satisfaction Testing a Dual Attachment Model,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance,30 August 1982, pp. 109–131.

10. B.J. Bass and B.J. Avolio, Manual for the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1990); and

B.J. Bass, Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1990).

11. For a review and description, see:

Bass (1990).

12. J.M. Howell and P.J. Frost, “A Laboratory Study of Charismatic Leadership,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 43 (1989): 243–269.

13. Bass and Avolio (1990).

B.J. Avolio, D.A. Waldman, and F.J. Yammarino, “The Four I’s of Transformational Leadership,” Journal of European Industrial Training 15 (1990): 9–16.

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