August 30, 2011
The Common Traits of Leaders
BY Mary Mahoney
If only we could distill the essence of great leadership, bottle it and inoculate our elected officials and captains of industry with it. What a difference that would make in our world and our lives.
Failing that, we must go through a process of elimination to identify the best leaders, discounting candidates who fall short on the key personality traits we believe they need to do the job. What are those traits?
Warren Buffett, the chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. who has become a legend in his own lifetime – “the Oracle of Omaha” — for his investment acumen, often is put on a pedestal as a business leader.
“Buffett may be the most trusted leader in the corporate world today,” said Todd Thomas, in an article for The Street entitled Why We Trust Warren Buffett: Leadership Matters. Thomas singles out three of Buffett’s traits: transparency, consistency and integrity.
“When asked why he invests the way he does, Buffett is not shy in explaining his thinking, even if it is contrary to the public view,” Thomas said, speaking of the Oracle’s commitment to transparency. “When he screws up, he says so.”
On consistency, Thomas notes: “Buffett doesn’t chase after the latest and greatest but uses a consistent formula for making his decisions.” About Buffett’s integrity, Thomas simply says, “He does what he says he is going to do.”
The news media is not shy about assessing the leadership characteristics of politicians or business executives. For example, the Phoenix Business Journal this summer published a roster of 25
Most Admired CEOs at local companies and ascribed seven traits it said are common to each: longevity, loyalty, work ethic, corporate citizenship, vision, humility, risk-taking.
College professors also get into the act. In The Leadership Challenge, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner of the the Leavey School of Business and Administration at Santa Clara University
in California, compiled a “top 20” list of characteristics that followers most admire in leaders (ranked in order of importance):
Honest, competent, forward-looking, inspiring, intelligent, fair-minded, broad-minded, straightforward, imaginative, dependable, supportive, courageous, caring, cooperative, mature, ambitious, determined, self-controlled, loyal and independent.
(You would be forgiven if you confused these characteristics with the Boy Scout Law. And you might wonder whether successful CEOs like John D. Rockefeller, Steve Jobs and Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap would make the grade, especially those known for uncontrollable tempers, obsessive micromanagement and psychopathic tendencies.)
Even the U.S. Army Field Manual sets forth personal attributes and core competencies in its Leadership Requirements Model. Attributes include empathy, warrior ethos, military bearing and innovation.
Clearly there is a desire on the part of business, news media and the military to distill the essence of leadership. Business wants criteria upon which to identify and hire senior leaders. The news media wants objective criteria in order to make judgments. The military wants to imbue leadership qualities in its prospective officers.
Just when a formula for success seems within reach, leave it to the late Peter Drucker, the “father of modern management,” to throw a monkey wrench into the process. He contended there is no such thing as “leadership qualities” or a “leadership personality.”
“Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, were all highly effective — and highly visible — leaders during World War II,” Drucker said in a 1988 article in the Wall Street Journal. “No two of them shared any ‘personality traits’ or any ‘qualities.’”
First, he said, leaders are people who work hard and can define and establish an organizational mission clearly and visibly. Second, good leaders consider their positions as a responsibility and never blame others when things go wrong. The final requirement of effective leadership is to earn the trust of people in the organization.
Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland strike a compromise between Drucker’s school of thought and those who invest heavily in leadership traits. In their 1991 article, Leadership: Do Traits Matter?, the professors conclude that while traits alone do not guarantee the ability to lead, certain characteristics help leaders acquire the necessary skills.
“Leaders do not have to be great men or women by being intellectual geniuses or omniscient prophets to succeed, but they do need to have the right stuff, and this stuff is not equally present in all people.
“Key leader traits include: drive (a broad term that includes achievement, motivation, ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative); leadership motivation (the desire to lead but not to seek power as an end in itself); honesty and integrity; self-confidence (which is associated with emotional stability); cognitive ability; and knowledge of the business.”
Their contention is supported by Ronald Riggio in a Psychology Today article entitled Leaders: Born or Made? Research, he said, shows that leadership is “one-third born and two-thirds made.”
“To expect that a person would be born with all of the tools needed to lead just doesn’t make sense based on what we know about the complexity of social groups and processes,” Riggio said, adding that research suggests the following personal traits are advantageous for leaders: extraversion, assertiveness, risk-taking, empathy and an understanding of social situations and processes.
A University of Cincinnati ROTC primer entitled Leadership Traits and Behaviors, mirrors my conclusion on the subject: “While sociologists, psychologists, strategists, historians, and business analysts have made significant progress in learning about leadership, there remains no single universally accepted formula for creating a great leader.”
All the more reason to explore the topic at greater length in upcoming blogs!