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Leadership Traits: Three Perspectives

The unending debate about leadership traits can’t be resolved without an agreed definition of leadership. Conventional leadership means being in charge of a group, formally or informally. Such leaders influence their groups to pursue a goal and they coordinate efforts to achieve it.

Conventional leadership, however, is a confusing mixture of leadership and management. A definition of leadership that is totally separate from management says that leadership promotes new directions. On this view, leaders challenge the status quo to advocate a better way. As soon as they get involved in execution, they are wearing a managerial hat. Quite different traits are required for these two ways of defining leadership. A third perspective denies that there are universal leadership traits altogether.

Conventional Leadership

Discussions of conventional leadership focus on senior executives of large organizations. So, the question of leadership traits becomes: What traits does it take to become a senior executive and be effective in that role?

Early research on leadership traits was unsatisfactory because leadership was felt to vary too much across situations. But, in recent years, some agreement has been achieved, based on rigorous research, about the traits needed for leadership. Among such traits are the following:

  • Intelligence
  • Personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness and emotional stability
  • Motives such as the need for power and achievement
  • Social skills such as social and emotional intelligence

This is not an exhaustive list but enough to make it clear that the focus of trait research is on conventional leadership defined as what it takes to get things done by taking charge and coordinating the efforts of a group toward a goal. Conscientiousness is essential for the achievement of complex goals. Social skills are necessary to resolve conflict between people and to get the best out of them. Power motivation is sometimes expressed as the drive to dominate, to be the person who calls the shots in a group. This drive is found in many animal species, not just humans.

Leadership Reinvented for the 21st Century

Anyone who thinks about the meaning of leadership would agree that leaders influence people to do things that they would not do otherwise. The question is: Who are they influencing? The conventional concept of leadership takes a narrow view: leaders influence members of the group in which they are the recognized leader. But, it can be argued that this is only a special case of leadership. A more general, wider view recognizes that leadership can influence people who are not members of the leader’s immediate group.

Consider the following examples:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led that organization to rule such discrimination unconstitutional.
  • Mahatma Gandhi’s protests led Britain to grant independence to India.Jack Welch’s demand that all GE businesses be first or second in their markets led other companies around the globe to follow his example.
  • Green leaders such as Al Gore could have a leadership impact on communities in far flung places that he has never visited.
  • A front-line knowledge worker convinces top management to adopt a new product.

In none of the above examples is the person who shows leadership a member of the group to which leadership is shown, let alone in charge of it. The other feature shared by these examples is that the leaders had nothing to do with managing the implementation of their proposals in the groups that followed their lead. In other words, their leadership was successful, and it came to an end, once their respective follower groups acted based on the leadership shown by what was effectively an outsider relative to their group.

The essence of this leadership is showing a better way, sometimes by being the first to do something novel and sometimes by explicitly challenging the status quo. But why should we be interested in such odd instances of leadership? The reason is that we now live in a fast changing world that is driven by rampant innovation. Leadership in this realm is rapidly shifting from hierarchical position to the person with the latest good idea. But no one has a monopoly on good ideas, so we need to see leadership as a rapidly shifting, transient ability to have a brief impact on people, rather than as an ongoing position or role. The future success of organizations that depend on innovation will be driven by the ideas of front-line knowledge workers. The great benefit of this shift in power is that those at the front-line will feel massively empowered when organizations start to recognize them as their real leaders. This shift in perspective can only lead to more innovation, greater employee engagement and better talent retention.

The value of citing King, Gandhi, Jack Welch and Al Gore in this context is to show that bottom-up leadership is not an isolated case of having a leadership impact on a group without being in charge of it. The conventional business model of leadership has blinded us to other forms of leadership. Bottom-up leadership can also be called thought leadership and it can be shown top-down and sideways as well as bottom-up.

Traits for Leadership Reinvented

Consider the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi where the focus is not on their street followers but on their target audience – their respective governments and the general population. What do these leaders have in common? Certainly not their style. King was a brilliant orator. Gandhi was a quiet, peaceful person who believed in passive resistance. The critical trait they shared was courage – the courage to challenge the status quo, even at great personal risk. In addition, they both had a drive to improve the world around them, to find a better way.

Compare the leadership of King and Gandhi to that of the front-line knowledge worker who promotes a new product to senior management. The risk that this thought leader takes is potential rejection, ridicule or loss of job. Again, courage is the key trait. If employees who show such bottom-up leadership can demonstrate the value of their proposal, they don’t necessarily need to have great interpersonal skills or emotional intelligence. In fact, their influencing style could be quite obnoxious provided they can make a convincing case for their proposal. This shows that social skills are not essential to show such leadership, however much having them might be icing on the cake.

A Third Slant on Leadership Traits

There may be some common, if not entirely universal, traits required to be a chief executive. Intelligence, social skills and emotional stability are likely to be important. But, leadership viewed as promoting a better way is not about rising to the top of the pile. It can range from the very heroic end of the spectrum, as in the case of King and Gandhi, to very ordinary, everyday suggestions to do something different. Suppose you are a junior office boy in an accounting practice. Let’s assume that you are rather timid and self-effacing. In this context, how much courage would it take to suggest to your boss that the office needs new pencil sharpeners? Taking a stand on such an issue may require some courage, but your life is not at risk. Unlike Gandhi, you won’t be thrown in prison.

In another case, suppose you decide to champion a new product to your colleagues. Let’s say that your idea is so obviously good, and your colleagues are such opportunists, that they get on board immediately. Here, you have promoted a new direction and thereby shown leadership but you didn’t need much courage or even very good influencing skills to influence your followers.

The bottom line is that shifting our concept of leadership to the promotion of a better way means that there are no special traits required universally. It all depends on the receptivity of your target audience and the risks associated with challenging the status quo. Of course, if you want to question fundamental values, like the supposed right to drive gas-guzzling cars or carry guns, then you will need more courage than what it takes to suggest buying new pencil sharpeners. But this proves the point: leadership thus reinvented is totally relative to the situation. Some courage may always be required but it is pretty minimal in some situations.

Getting to the top of the pile is an all-or-nothing thing, but showing leadership in the sense of advocating a better way admits of degrees both in terms of the potential impact on people and the amount of courage required to show it. Conventional leadership is all about how you manage a group. For leadership reinvented, it is a matter of showing a better way and it can be shown within or across groups by insiders and outsiders. The definition of leadership is universal – it is always about showing a better way. It’s application is totally situational. This is true of all influence as, for example, in the case of sales. We can define sales in general terms but what it takes to get someone to buy a product varies greatly from one product to another, across buyers and situations. The sales person needs different traits or skills in each situation. Only the most difficult sales require the sales person to have the thick skin and persistence we frequently associate with sales people.

The Ambition to Lead

When people say they want to be leaders, they’re thinking of the power and glory associated with high office, not to mention the associated monetary rewards. Leaders like King and Gandhi have a very different outlook. It’s not about personal ambition for them. Their aim is to change the world regardless of the personal consequences. This is also true for more everyday instances of leadership. The aim is to improve the way something is done, not to become somebody. In fact, the most innovative knowledge workers are so dedicated to creative thinking that they often have little use for status. Like King and Gandhi, their driive is to change the world, not to dominate a group of people.

The fact that no special traits are required to show leadership at the everyday end of the spectrum is very empowering because it means that everyone can show some leadership to some people some of the time. At this end of the scale, such leadership may be rather factual or technical. To show leadership wherever there is a fundamental clash of human values or strong opinions, courage is the most important trait.

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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