How much of leadership is traits and skills?

Think about the best example of leadership you’ve witnessed in your life. How would you describe it? You might paint a picture of a specific leader you knew who was honest, competent, and charismatic. Or, you might describe a process where a leader or group of leaders influenced a community of people towards a common goal.

As scholars and practitioners have thought about leadership in organizations, there have emerged two main foci. In the last 30 years, there has been a lot of focus on leadership as a process, a relationship, a dynamic interaction between leader(s) and follower(s) as part of a group towards a common goal. On the other hand, a more conventional way of thinking about leadership is in terms of leadership traits and skills. This approach to leadership asks what special set of traits and skills make up a leader.

These two foci (leadership as process and leadership as traits/skills) are not mutually exclusive but reflect different emphases and it’s worth unpacking. In this post I will describe some of the development in thinking about leadership as a set traits and skills. Then, I will look at some current research that is bringing back the traits and skills focus in leadership studies, and I will end with some personal reflections.

My main argument is this: focusing on traits and skills in leadership is important to identify what behaviors and demeanor promote the process of leadership. However, the focus on traits can make us blind to the reality that leadership is a complex process that happens in a unique context.

Much ink has been spilt on leadership as a set of traits and skills of a leader. The traits and skills approach is detailed well in textbooks like Gary Yukl’s (2014) Leadership in Organizations and Peter Northouse’s (2013) Leadership: Theory and Practice. According to Yukl (2014) and Northouse (2013), the traits and skills approach sees leadership predominantly as comprising of a set of personality traits, values, and motives such as integrity and self-confidence, along with competencies like technical and/or interpersonal skills.

It seems to me that this is how most people conceptualize leadership. Would you agree with me?

At first glance, it’s pretty easy to criticize this approach by itself. From a critical theory standpoint, we could point to the fact that obvious leadership “traits” throughout history have simply been white, male, and dominant. I know in my experience I’ve been in leadership positions and wondered if it wasn’t due to the fact that I was simply a tall, white, male, who wasn’t bashful about sharing his opinion. I was glad to see this mentioned somewhat in the literature such as Mann (1959) who called “masculinity” and “dominance” common leadership traits (the irony of his name is fantastic.)

From a psychological standpoint, it seems likely that the traits and skills focus of leadership comes out of our human nature to be reductionist and black and white in our thinking. When we think about the great leaders of our time, our minds look for the simplest explanation for what caused their leadership. It’s far more satisfying to look to someone’s unique traits and skills than it is to try to digest the complex context in which that person rose to leadership. Not to mention, it seems human nature to idealize certain people, which then becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

But leadership is not simple and doesn’t always work out the way we wish. Rarely is this captured well. When thinking about the leadership of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, biographer Walter Isaacson does a good job embracing this complexity and articulating the unique contexts through which Jobs and Einstein became leaders in their respective fields, times, and places. It’s complex, ugly at times, and shows that traits are important but only in how they influence the process of leadership. At the end of the day you can’t ignore the complex context.

Other criticisms of this approach in the literature are its subjectivity, failing to take context into account, and the overall difficulty in matching leadership traits to outcomes. How can you prove that such and such traits cause such and such outcomes? It’s nearly impossible. Still, that hasn’t stopped the thousands of studies done on leadership traits and skills in the last century. For the most part, methodologically sound empirical research in leadership traits and skills is lacking.

Therefore, is the leadership traits and skills approach just a fond pastime we can look at with nostalgia as we remember simpler times? Can we relegate this approach to our bookshelves while we check out the more trendy leadership theories of today’s Harvard Business Review? Not so fast.

There’s a rebirth of this approach in the literature largely led by George Mason University professor Stephen Zaccaro at the Management Research Institute, just down the road from us at George Washington. Zaccaro has written several articles in which he outlines the renewal of the traits and skills approach in the leadership literature. Zaccaro (2007) argues four main points in the rebirth of this approach that I will try to paraphrase here:

  • First of all, we shouldn’t talk about traits as simplistic isolated things but as “patterns of behavior” that are interconnected with others.
  • What Zaccaro (2007) calls leadership “attributes” should be seen as combining in complex ways to create behavior.
  • We can’t forget the role of context or situation in affecting one’s leadership. Even old-school leadership theorists like R. M. Stogdill understood this, and Zaccaro (2007) cites Stogdill (1948) when he wrote in The Journal of Psychology, “persons who are leaders in one situation may not necessarily be leaders in other situations.” So context matters.
  • Lastly, some leadership traits are more stable over time while others change across time and context. Not all leadership traits are equal.

Zaccaro (2007) concludes that the traits approach is coming back and that there’s a growing body of empirical research to back it up. There may be more sophisticated ways to look at how leadership traits affect leadership outcomes in organizations.

But what about skills? Aren’t skills a necessary part of leadership? Stephen Zaccaro would say yes, because it is skills – especially skills in solving complex problems – that significantly contribute to one’s leadership.

In 2000, Zaccaro wrote an article along with Michael Mumford at the University of Oklahoma, T. Owen Jacobs at National Defense University, and his colleagues at GMU Edwin Fleishman and Francis Harding. (All men, by the way. But what do you expect, this is leadership literature after all…) Zaccaro et al. (2000) make a compelling case in defense of the idea that skills in solving complex problems is the essence of one’s leadership. They argue that leadership is ultimately an ongoing “complex form of social problem solving” (p. 14). And according to Zaccaro, many of these complex social problems are novel.

A huge part of leadership then is this skill of being competent enough to solve new and complex problems in a way that satisfies the various stakeholders within and beyond an organization. The authors go on to develop a framework of leadership that includes leadership traits like cognitive abilities and personality in conjunction with problem solving and social skills, all which are influenced by contextual factors.

To bring the focus of leadership as a process together with the focus of leadership as traits and skills, it requires very complex research that we might not be equipped to do. We are trained as quantitative researchers to have two constructs, specific variables, and use statistical tests to find differences in populations or phenomena. In qualitative research we can study a phenomenon somewhat complexly but it isn’t generalizable.

What do you think? Obviously my ability to present this approach in a way that would satisfy its advocates is severely limited by space, time, and my own intellectual capacity.

As I reflect on my own experience, there is an intuitive response in me that wants to cry out, “yes, certain traits and skills are the essence of leadership.” When I think back to my old college president Bill Robinson, it seemed so clear to me then that it was his traits and skills that made him the remarkable president he was. He was a man of integrity, intelligence, self-confidence, determination, and sociability, which are the five major traits Northouse (2013) synthesizes from the literature. He also had immense technical, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills. He literally memorized every student’s name (at a university of 2200 students), delivered moving speeches, and raised millions of dollars for the university.

But to return to my main point, let me end by emphasizing that Bill’s traits and skills were indeed important to the leadership process, but not the only thing. His patterns of behavior worked within a unique context that promoted the process of leadership in amazing ways. It was relational, interdependent, and

Still, many questions loom for me as I consider the role of traits and skills in leadership: How, if at all, do leadership traits and skills vary across time and culture? How much of leadership traits and skills are socially constructed? What does this theory imply about how we should move forward with leadership development as a society? How does the theory impact the way we could foster leadership in populations that aren’t inclined to these traits and skills for whatever reason?

The journey continues.

Let me know what you think

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