By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This is the first article in a two-part series about good leaders.
Formal management and leadership research began in the early 20th century. Some of the first work in this field was directed at trying to determine whether or not there were characteristics — physical or psychological — that were sufficiently correlated with successful leadership so as to infer causal relationship.
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In other words, scholars wanted to know if there were any attributes that all successful leaders possessed, such that they could build a “recipe” for successful leaders. This research came to be known as the trait theory of leadership.
The answer, predominantly, was no. The early research was largely unsuccessful at finding any qualities which correlated perfectly with successful leadership. In terms of physical characteristics, there were none that even looked generally promising. Indeed, successful leaders come in all different shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities, genders and abilities.
However, in terms of psycho-social elements, while there were no qualities that were consistently present among all the successful leaders evaluated, the researchers did find a few qualities which could be loosely associated with leadership success. From expert to expert, the scope of such lists and the name assigned to each quality will vary. In this article, I’ll look at some of these qualities and the limited implications that can be drawn therefrom.
The Eight Qualities of Good Leaders
Good leaders share certain qualities. One of those qualities is drive. Generally speaking, successful leaders usually have high levels of energy, ambition and a drive for success.
Also, good leaders are typically highly motivated and very persistent with respect to their goals. Considering the level of effort which would ordinarily be necessary to achieve levels of greatness sufficient to earn one’s self a prominent place in the annals of history, this quality is not surprising.
A second quality is a desire to lead. In addition to possessing a high level of drive, successful leaders often have a strong desire to lead others, rather than follow from behind. They enjoy the influence that they can exercise over others in pursuit of goals, and are not afraid to take responsibility for other people.
A third quality is honesty and integrity. Most successful leaders are honest with their followers and consequently develop very high levels of trust and credibility among the people they lead.
There is also a high degree of consistency between a good leader’s words and actions. This is not to say, however, that all successful leaders have been so honest and consistent, as there are obviously plenty of cases that would disprove such a notion.
A fourth quality is self-confidence. Generally, leaders who are successful possess a high level of self-confidence and minimal self-doubt. This confidence translates directly to their followers; their subordinates are not concerned with their ability to accomplish an organization’s stated goals. While the appearance of self-confidence in good leaders may not be genuine, follower commitment and loyalty will still be positively affected in the same way as long as the leader is perceived to be self-confident.
A fifth quality is intelligence. Most successful leaders need to possess a fair degree of intelligence and a commensurate ability to process large amounts of complex data in order to make important decisions from an informed perspective. In today’s organizations, such data is far too voluminous and complicated for any one leader to manage it all.
Instead, leaders rely on teams of supporting experts to provide the most relevant macro-level conclusions from data and recommend courses of action. In this sense, even intelligence may not be a barrier to successful leadership, so long as the leader can a) appear intelligent in order to maintain credibility, and b) surround himself or herself with adequate help.
A sixth quality is job-relevant knowledge. In addition to the ability to process information — or intelligence — good leaders must also have a sufficient level of knowledge about the nature of the position they occupy and the challenges that exist in that position.
In the business world, this knowledge may equate to a history of adequate experience in an industry field. But as with intelligence, this quality may also be essentially faked so long as a leader has good help.
A seventh quality is extraversion. It is true that most leaders are highly energetic, outgoing and gregarious people who thrive in environments that involve a lot of social interaction. They are also generally assertive with their positions and influence. However, history has also shown that some of the very best leaders are far from extraverted.
Perhaps the quintessential example of an introverted leader is President Abraham Lincoln. He is well-documented as a man who abhorred the spotlight and preferred quiet seclusion to the constant interaction that accompanied the presidency.
However, Lincoln managed to repress his preferences and lead the country through one of the most difficult periods in its history. He is not generally remembered for his quiet and reserved persona, save for historians and their readership. But Lincoln nonetheless serves as an example that introversion mustn’t always inhibit a leader from achieving even the very highest levels of success and notoriety.
A final quality is accountability. Most successful leaders have a strong sense of accountability for the results of not only their own efforts, but also those of their followers. In this sense, they are happy to share credit when things go well, but also to accept blame when things don’t.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once wrote about how to reconcile his successes and failures as a leader. In his memoir, Powell said that good leaders should “share the credit, take the blame, and quietly find out and fix things that went wrong. Whenever you place the cause of one of your actions outside yourself, it’s an excuse and not a reason.”
Clearly, the trait theory of leadership suggests that certain positive qualities may lead to effective leadership. But what about the ethics of leadership? How do these traits affect a leader’s ability to make moral decisions? In the second part of this article, I’ll outline some of the implications of leadership traits for ethical behavior.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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