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Essential Leadership Traits

What is the most essential leadership trait? Integrity? Vision? Emotional intelligence? The truth: there are none. They are ALL situational requirements.

If leadership is a type of influence, then what it takes to influence a particular group of prospective followers is completely situational. What if leadership means being in charge people thus having responsibility? Anyone with responsibility, even a lonely lighthouse keeper needs to be trusted.

The more that’s at stake, the more that a role occupant needs to be trusted. If you own a corner grocery store and are hiring a cashier, you want an employee who can be trusted to handle cash. Also, you want someone who is conscientious, honest, friendly with customers, etc.

Responsibility comes with all roles. Every role requires the occupant to have certain traits in order to fit into that role successfully.

But if leadership is a type of influence, not a role, then it does not entail responsibilities. This is easiest to see if we compare leading to selling, not that selling is leading, however. The fact that leadership is a type of influence does not entail that all forms of influence count as leadership.

So, what personal traits does it take to sell something? Selling insurance is quite challenging, but what about selling a nearly new iPod on eBay for half its original price? This analogy makes it clear that it all depends on what you are selling and what it might take to convince a prospective buyer. A person with the best selling skills in the world might not be able to sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

But, you might object, what if someone knowingly sells a harmful substance that leads to the buyer’s death? Is the seller not responsible for the buyer’s death? Yes, the person doing the selling is responsible, but selling, as a process, is not a responsibility.

We have to say simply that, selling has occurred when someone buys. The mere fact of buying makes the effort to sell an actual sale regardless of the consequences for the buyer.

Similarly, when people choose to follow a leadership act, then leadership has occurred. It is an event or process, not a role, hence not a responsibility. If a terrorist broadcasts a message encouraging anyone listening to assassinate someone and the outcome happens, then we can say that leadership has occurred. Of course, the person issuing the call to kill someone must share at least some of the responsibility for the resulting act. But, again, the leadership process is not a responsibility. It is simply an outcome.

All successful influence attempts are an outcome, an impact on an audience. We have the sayings: “There’s no accounting for taste” and “There’s a sucker born every minute” to express our surprise or disgust at what some people like or decide to buy.

The same is true of leadership. All sorts of bizarre people have followers. The fact that neither you nor I would follow them, doesn’t mean that their influence can’t be leadership in the eyes of some people.

Most people who think about leadership regard successful CEOs as leaders. As role occupants, CEOs have massive responsibilities. Certain traits, like integrity, help them discharge those responsibilities more effectively than if they lacked those traits.

But if we say that successful CEOs are leaders, we have a problem. How do we reconcile this view with the fact that leadership can be shown without occupying any kind of role at all? Suppose a champion of green policies promotes new initiatives on energy conservation and successfully influences numerous organizations, communities and countries to adopt these policies. Is this not leadership?

Because our green leader is not in charge of those who follow, this leadership is simply an impact. There are countless instances of this type of leadership where people champion action on a particular issue and are followed by people who do not report to the person who shows such leadership.

The only way to reconcile these two conflicting ways of viewing leadership is to say that CEOs are managers and that management can be a role with a set of responsibilities.

Thus we can say that managers, not leaders, need to have certain traits that make them worthy of our trust. This means that we should really stop talking about leaders altogether and simply refer to acts of leadership.

Leadership as a Relational Term

Just as you can’t eat without eating something, or sell without someone buying, you can’t lead without someone following.

Compare what it means to reward versus murder someone. Both entail that a person is on the receiving end. When killing someone, the victim has no say in the matter. Conversely, when we think we are rewarding people and they don’t value our reward, then have we really rewarded them or not?

Clearly what counts as a reward is in the eye of the beholder.

This analogy shows that rewarding someone is relational in two senses: it entails that a person is given a reward and also that the recipient’s attitude determines whether what is given is an actual reward or not.

Similarly, if leadership occurs, then someone must have followed. But, in addition, those who follow must value what the person doing the leading is promoting.

This means that leading, like rewarding, is in the eye of the beholder. And this is another reason why we can’t say what traits it takes to lead people. This means that the energy we put into trying to identify leadership traits amounts to putting the cart before the horse. We are too focused on the input side of the equation. We need to be more customer-focused, to borrow a phrase from marketing.

Hence if you want to lead people, stop looking inside yourself and focus instead on what it will take to move your particular audience.

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