On February 28th, I presented a paper with three colleagues at the Educational Symposium for Research and Innovations (ESRI) at The George Washington University. ESRI is a flagship program at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development that allows students and faculty to share research in a conference format that is supportive and engaging.
I thoroughly enjoyed presenting alongside colleagues on a paper titled Motivation to Learn: Perspectives from Different Adult Populations. We did a literature-based paper on motivation to learn in the workplace of older adults (50+), post 9/11 veterans, and millennials (born from 1980-1995). This is important in that these are growing populations in the American workforce and largely unrepresented in the literature. We found that desire for choice, opportunities for connectedness, and the importance of purpose were similar motivations for learning the workplace across the populations. However, there is a serious dearth of literature on motivation as it relates to these populations as well as in cross-cultural contexts. So there is much interesting work to be done!
What are your thoughts?
Here is a picture of some of my colleagues along with my adviser, Dr. Maria Cseh.
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.
Organizations are everywhere and unavoidable. The United States of America, your local place of worship, Starbucks, The George Washington University, Walmart, International Rescue Committee, the Daily Show with John Stewart – these are all organizations, right?
When you think about measuring the success of a given organization, it seems like most of us think about whether an organization is efficient, profitable, and maybe even environmentally friendly. One thing seems clear: an organization’s ethics is far down the list of considerations. And even if people are thinking about ethics, how much is it affecting our decisions as consumers?
Take the NFL for example. The NFL has been shrouded in controversy this year: domestic violence, allegations of cheating, and of course the ongoing (but muted) scandal of head injuries and former players suffering from dementia and early death. This year it seemed like not a week went by that the NFL wasn’t in the news for a scandal and still the Superbowl was the largest watched event in U.S. history! Even at the end of the game players were throwing punches and getting ejected. Not to mention the Superbowl is notorious for being one of the biggest sex trafficking events of the year.
What’s going on? Either we’re very forgetful, very forgiving, we don’t care much about ethics, or something else is up…
Part of the problem, according to Harvard professor and author of the book Justice, Michael Sandel, is that ethics is harder to define. Recently, I heard Sandel speak at GW and he made a point that perhaps one reason we as a society tend to measure things in economic terms is that it’s easier to agree on whether something makes money rather than whether something is ethical. Makes sense. No one can argue with profits and GDP. Numbers are straightforward and mostly safe from disagreement. Asking whether something is ethical seems to open a very convoluted can of worms with only one good answer: “it depends…”
To simplify things (which our brains love to do) I think most of us operate as if ethical is linked to profitable. But let’s assume they aren’t one and the same.
Let’s work out our brains a little. Even as you read the title of this blog post I hope you found yourself asking, “Well, what does it even mean to be ethical?” My response to you: Good point. Let’s talk about it. What does it mean to be ethical?
How do you tell if an organization is ethical? Do you care?
I’m keen to hear your thoughts.
One of the seminal texts of Human Systems Change is The Social Psychology of Organizations by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn published in 1966 and again in 1978. In short, the book is about Open Systems Theory, which says organizations are open to being affected by their external environments and that the character of every organization is continually in a state of flux. In the sixties when the book was published, this was a fairly revolutionary idea but is taken as a given in organizational literature today.
In class, we discussed the idea that to some extent, all organizations in one way or another are in the business of controlling people’s behavior. Maybe the word “control” isn’t the best. This book was published in 1978, after all, and its language is a little outdated. But the idea remains true: every organization has to ensure people do what they are supposed to do, whatever that is. Think about it: even asking people to show up for work or check emails is an attempt to influence the behavior of employees. But humans are not robots and we (especially Americans) frown on the idea of being controlled by anyone to do anything. At the end of the day, however, that’s what organizations do.
Katz and Kahn write that “every organization faces the task of somehow reducing the variability, instability, and unpredictability of individual human acts” (p. 296). This is where the “control” or influence comes in.
But wait, what about innovation and creativity? Creativity and innovation are generated by fostering the very thing organizations are trying to prevent, i.e. variability, instability, and unpredictability! If you were to look up the ingredients for creativity in the Recipe Book of Geniuses (not a real book), those three words would be at the top of the list! Still, you have companies like Google and Apple trying to structure (or “control”) their work environments to promote creativity.
The paradox emerges.
At the end of the day, organizations are trying to maximize resources, including human resources. Creativity and innovation are scarce resources and the most creative companies are emerging as hugely successful. So, what can organizations do? Should they just throw up their hands and give up in the face of this paradox? Of course not. It also doesn’t work to say, “Okay everyone, from 3:00-5:00 today it’s creativity time!”
Organizations must paradoxically control that which cannot be controlled. They must create spaces for variability, instability, and unpredictability to run wild. How to do this exactly is a question for another time.
As many of you know, I have been working tirelessly for the last few months on a book chapter for a book on education in Thailand published by Springer. The chapter is on Higher Education in Thailand and focuses on trends of privatization and massification. It was a labor of love and took many hours. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and encouragement. Special thanks to people who advised me in the writing process as well.
My first draft is done and I await comments from the editor, my colleague and friend Gerry Fry at the University of Minnesota. It will likely be published later this year. Books of this nature can have a 6-month editorial process. I am excited to write and publish more about international education and human resource development issues.
In March I will be presenting on global competence development in Thailand as part of the Comparative International Education Society conference in D.C.
I thoroughly enjoy the life of an academic. It has a reputation of being one of isolation but I have found it to be quite the opposite. I enjoy meeting and talking with colleagues around the world, learning about new research, and thinking about how to use research to inform policy and practice. I find much of my time is indeed taken up with reading and writing but there is certainly a very vibrant social aspect to being an academic.
I have been here in Washington, D.C. for over 6 months but I’m not yet used to riding my bike to meet a friend for coffee and riding right in front of the White House. There is a noticeable pulse and energy here and I’m grateful for the opportunity to study in D.C.
The George Washington University is an exciting place to be studying Human and Organizational Learning. Daily I am engaged with issues of adult development, organizational change, and leadership – all within a few blocks from some of America’s main political hotspots.
I’ve settled into my work as Graduate Research Assistant with Dr. Maria Cseh and life as a doctoral student. It wasn’t too long ago I was at Harvard but it still feels like I’m flexing new muscles. At orientation I remember one of the Vice Dean’s words that doctoral studies are transformational. I am beginning to sense that transformation as I develop more thoughtful processes of asking and answering questions.
The outline of the program is fairly standard: two years of coursework, a year of comprehensive exams and defending a proposal, and finishing up with a year of dissertation writing and defense. Courses so far have piqued my interests. Last semester I took courses on the Foundations of Human and Organizational Learning, Adult Learning, and a general course required of all doctoral students on Issues in Education. This semester I’m taking Human Systems Change, Leadership in Organizations and a statistics for research course called Group Comparison Designs and Analyses.
I am working with Dr. Cseh on the Global Competence Enrichment Program and focusing many of my course papers on global competence. I would like to write my dissertation on global competence development, likely with a focus in Thailand and Southeast Asia but many questions remain. My desire is to become an international scholar, author, and leader in human resource development. The road is long but the journey is well worth it.