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An ideal type of leader?

July 3, 2024

Charles Bird (1893-1957) was a British psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. His works include a study during the First World War on the psychological effects of war on soldiers, and later in his career, a book bringing together contemporary knowledge of human social behaviour (Social Psychology, 1940).[1]

In Social Psychology, Bird lists 79 leadership traits that were deemed desirable by twenty companies he surveyed. The traits ranged from things that are familiar today, like ‘adaptable’ and ‘courageous’, through to those more revealing of their time, like ‘dignified’ and ‘poised.’

Excerpt from Social Psychology, pp. 379

As noted by Bird, remarkably “51 of these traits, or 65 per cent, are mentioned once [and] 16 or 20 per cent are common to two lists…” The two most frequent traits were Initiative with six (about 30%) and High Intelligence with ten (about 50%).

What does this suggest? One might conclude that these few repeating skills are always relevant in leaders. They should appear most often because they form a core of what a leader is. We might even assert that they are so central and obvious that people didn’t report them as desired. That might go some way to explain why intelligence only appeared in half of the responses, too. Alternatively, and like the scholars of the mid-20th Century, you might surmise that this demonstrates an important gap: situation. That is, the wide and unique distribution of traits implies that we need leaders tuned to cope with their specific context. Indeed, a leader forged from Bird’s list being ‘cultured,’ ‘talkative,’ and with ‘high motor ability’ has limited pure application. The leader of a theatre company’s juggling team, perhaps? Flippancy aside, the simple conclusion was that different situations call for different responses. That a leader has moments where ‘humanness’ will play much better than being ‘aggressive’ and so on. Thus, with Bird’s and other similar observations, trait-based leadership lost favour in the 1960s and 1970s, surpassed by situation-aware, contextual, and contingency-based leadership.

However, that didn’t last. Trait-based leadership slowly gained ground from its decline and today is as popular as ever. A brief look at the proliferation of leadership styles and models available illustrates well. Should you be a Servant Leader, a Supportive, Enabling, or Authentic one? Maybe you can be Autocratic, Directive or Authoritative? Perhaps Visionary, Transformational, Strategic, Charismatic, or Pace-setting? How about being a Distributed, Ethical, Coaching, or Laissez-faire leader? Or you should choose to be a Relationship-Oriented, Participative, Democratic, or even a Task-Oriented Leader? That’s already some list, but it is by no means the end. One paper I read, reviewing the link between leadership style and Big-5 personality traits (Hassan et al, 2016)[1], listed defining characteristics for thirty-nine distinct types of leaders. I also heard that being a Creative leader is better than being a Reactive one, and neither of those are on my list or in that paper.

Alongside those developments, what has happened to the situations we face? Arguably, things have not stabilised. We do not have fewer types of things that can be led, and indeed some seem to make a career saying that things are more complex and volatile than they ever have been (‘VUCA world!‘ anyone?). Thus, one conclusion could be – like Bird – that the growth of approaches is keeping step with the varying contexts we find. That we have greater choice of leadership types, each suited to the unique challenges we find. That we intentionally pick and adapt the styles we think best suit our situation and reap the results. That contextual leadership therefore, still dominates.

Yet, with a brief look at published books, articles, and talks, you might wonder where this features at all. Myriad opinion-pieces, consultants hawking their models and certifications, and leaders extolling the virtues of their approach muddy the water. It’s easy to find an article telling you that ‘You should be this thing!’ and often more worrying, a specific version of that thing. Consider authentic leadership as an example (and it works with the others too). On the surface, it seems to be about wholeness and allowing the ‘you’ within to shine. Great! You didn’t want to fit into someone else’s mould anyway. But if you’re authentic self is a tyrant, or a person forever doubting their own ability and ideas, is that really what we meant? Inevitably, no. Instead, what authentic leadership tends to be about is fitting within a certain pattern determined by factors external to you. The titles of results when searching for ‘traits of authentic leadership’ demonstrates.  Of the first ten links, five offered explicit lists: ‘the five qualities’, ‘ten characteristics’, ‘eight qualities’, ‘twelve habits’, ‘ten rules’, and the remaining five still attempted to describe, for example ‘What It Is & Why It’s Important.’

To navigate these approaches vying for our attention, we must ask these training providers, consultancies, and framework authors questions about situation. What do they know about our organisation? What time have they spent working with us to probe and make sense of the complexity of our products, markets, and people before offering their prescription? Indeed, even if we produce the same product as another company, do we operate in the same way? How well would those practices and traits work across cultures in our global organisation, let alone among different companies in different industries?

Outside of a considered response, answers are likely to be so broad as to encompass any eventuality or, if not, will show their weakness. To therefore pay consultants multiple millions to recommended global standards and then, when they fail, pay them again for the next option seems counter-intuitive at best.

My advice? Before you commit to such a rollout and contribute to the self-interested 366-billion-dollar industry that is leadership training (Forbes, 2019), spend time understanding your unique situation, only then responding in harmony with your discoveries.

 


[1] Bird, Charles, 1940, Social Psychology, Appleton-Century. Available online at The Internet Archive, URL: https://archive.org/details/socialpsychology0000bird.

[2] Hassan, H., Asad, S., Hoshino, Y., 2016. Determinants of Leadership Style in Big Five Personality Dimensions. ujm 4, 161–179. https://doi.org/10.13189/ujm.2016.040402