Is Leadership a Skill or a Trait
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Published: Wed, 20 Dec 2017
Leadership is easily one of the most sought after and best-rewarded talents in the corporate world, politics and other spheres of life. A 1998 study by McKinsey & Company involving upwards of 6000 executives drawn from 77 organisations, coupled by case studies of 20 “talent-rich” organisations, established that up to 75% of companies were chronically short of leadership. The study projected that the demand for intelligent, sophisticated, globally astute, technologically literate and operationally flexible talents would remain a challenge for decades to come (Chambers et al, 1998). With the rapid expansion of the global economy and heightened international competition for scarce talents, coupled by rapid and unpredictable changes in operating environments, the need for leadership has never been greater. Yet, the nature and function of leadership remains one of the most dynamic and subjective concepts that has defied centuries of theoretical thought, research, practice and interest (Chamber et al, 1998, p.274). Among the outstanding issues remains whether leadership is an innate ability or can be learnt like any other skill. While this paper does not presume to have found the answer, it argues that leadership is a skill that can be achieved through effort, training, education, practice and experience (Swaroop & Prasad, 2013).
The Leadership Concept
In order to understand leadership’s nature and whether it is innate or acquired, it is helpful to separate different conceptions of leadership, while at once setting out how it differs from concepts of coercion, management and power. Over the recent decades, there have been more than 65 classification systems, developed to define varied and changing dimensions of leadership (Rowe, 2007). Rowe (2007) and Northhouse (2007) conceive leadership as a focus of multiple group processes, effectively giving a leader a critical role in shaping the group’s will, activity and change. Accordingly, leadership is a process by which a person influences a group to attain a desired goal. The process perspective argues that leadership is a contextual phenomenon that arises from the interactions between the followers and leaders. It is clearly observable in a leader’s behaviour, and as such, it can be acquired by others. In addition, leadership is a multi-directional/interactive effort that involves a measure of influence to direct the energies of a group towards serving a mutual purpose (Northhouse, 2007). Rowe (2007) defines leadership as “ a process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to achieve shared objectives ” (p. 1).
On the other hand, the trait perspective of leadership conceives leadership as a characteristic or set of characteristics possessed in different degrees by people (Northhouse, 2007). Effectively, leadership resides in a select few individuals who are born with such traits. This approach emphasises individual leadership qualities such as motives, personality, skills and values. Further, there is a difference between assigned and emergent leadership. Assigned leadership refers to the appointment of people to authority positions, whether or not they have the capacity to lead (Connelly & Rudnick, 2001; Kotter, 2011). Given the fact that organisations in the United States suffer from chronic leadership shortages (Chambers et al, 1998), it is highly likely that the tendency to assign people to leadership positions without considering their leadership capacity is mainly responsible for the lack of leadership. In part, this is explains the leadership shortages in Chambers, et al (1998). The shortages do not imply there are vacancies, but that important leadership positions are occupied by individuals without leadership capacity. It is easy to equate leadership to assigned position holders such as presidents, queens and mayors, but these positions can filled by bad or great leaders. There are individuals in villages, kindergarten classrooms, far-flung communities and even among animals, away from the cameras and public attention, with or without formal leadership positions, who perform leadership roles. Most of these people are emergent/situational leaders, who are perceived and accepted as most influential members of their respective communities, groups or organisations (Rowe, 2007; Northhouse, 2007). According to the social identity theory, emergent leadership is dependent on how well individuals fit with the group’s identity as a whole (Rowe, 2007). Effectively, the nature versus nurture debate regarding leadership comes down to the trait and style perspective on one hand and the process, situational, assigned and emergent leadership perspectives of leadership on the other.
The perspective that leadership is innate has largely been popularised by lazy corporate succession planning practices. Many organisations have devised systems to identify the best leaders in the industry and with the right compensation, they attract and retain them. This practice is driven by the fact that it is difficult to change people and instead of attempting to, companies look for the best and hire them (Beechler & Woodward, 2009; Chambers et al, 1998). Even individuals who have innate leadership traits (such as vision, inspiration and determination) are trapped in stagnant organisation succession plans, without opportunities to develop and practice their skills (Beechler & Woodward, 2009). The idea of developing leadership capacity is unpopular because offering adequate learning opportunities and experiences requires heavy resource commitment and time. High annual employee turnovers and the existence predatory organisations that seek to poach talents discourage organisations from investing in building their own talents. In addition, developing effective leaders for an organisation requires that groups accurately diagnose their leadership needs and identify high potential individuals to develop. This is a risky process, which given the great expense, is very unattractive to organisational leaders, whose pay check largely depends on the short term performance (Byham, 2010).
Theorists and leadership practitioners that support the trait perspective argue that leadership is genetic, but may be encouraged through learning. It is difficult to give a person leadership traits, even with the right developmental interventions. There is genetic evidence that links some chromosomes (DRD4 on chromosome 11) with certain personality types and leadership traits (Byham, 2010). People have different personality types and traits, with some having attributes that are best-suited for leadership than others. Some intelligence theories support this argument. According to Spearman’s theory of intelligence (initially published in 1904), mental ability tests exhibited manifold positive correlation, meaning that if an individual is unable to perform well in mathematics for instance, they are equally unlikely to perform well in other subjects or aspects of life. This theory has the implication that individuals are suited to do different tasks depending on their genetic endowment. Similarly, Gardner’s theory of intelligence argues that there are multiple types of intelligence that include linguistic, mathematical/logical, spatial thought, musical, kinetic/bodily, interpersonal, intra-personal and naturalist intelligence (Sternberg, 2004). These intelligences are mostly natural, but can be shaped during a child’s formative years. According to the multiple intelligences theory, people are differently suited to different occupations including leadership. According to this perspective, Stephen Hawkins, who is a theoretical physicist (mathematical and spatial intelligence), is less suited as leader compared to Oprah Winfrey (interpersonal, intra-personal and naturalist intelligence).
According to Kotter (2011), leadership occurs daily and everywhere. Organisations, communities and even countries face adaptive difficulties always and if leadership were a preserve of a select few, there would be a crisis. This assertion is backed up by the hugely influential contingency theory, which argues that leadership is dependent on certain situations (Heifetz & Laurie, 1997). Michael Brown’s leadership as the director of the United States’ Federal Emergence Management Agency (FEMA) before and after Hurricane Katrina is illustrative of this argument. When Katrina hit, FEMA failed to order timely evacuation of vulnerable populations and was ill-prepared to respond despite its massive resources and having received ample warnings from the National Hurricane Centre of the impending disaster. FEMA failed to plan for, and was unable coordinate emergency responses among the local, state and federal agencies, including failure to mobilise its own staff, sister-agencies and the military (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006).
Other than failed strategic planning, Brown’s indecision before during and after the disaster, poor initiative and failure to inspire the confidence of the victims were key to the botched response and crisis. While it is fundamentally arguable that Winston Churchill and Roosevelt would never have been as great without World War II and the Great Depression respectively, there are endless contingencies and leadership varieties in the world today. Organisations, communities and other groups face increasingly globalised operating environments,, with volatile markets, diverse modes of work and cultures. The rise of the knowledge economy, technology, demographic changes, increased mobility, changing economic trends and other factors have not only put a premium on leadership, but also emphasised how dynamic leadership can be (Beechler & Woodward, 2009).
According to Kotter (2011), the argument that leadership is a question of vision, charisma or other fancy trait is a pernicious half-truth that has been told too many times so much that some believe it. Leadership has little to do with innate individual traits, other than those that can be acquired and nurtured. Leadership is about coping with change and adaptation to new conditions, including setting direction, aligning and motivating people. On the other hand, Peter Drucker, one of the foremost management consultants today, argues that leadership has little to do with personality. The most effective leaders exhibit hugely varied values, personalities and personal strengths. They may be reclusive or extroverted, controlling or easy-going, parsimonious or generous (Drucker, 2011). With discipline and constant practice, it is possible for anyone to gain the knowledge needed to make great decisions, achieve accountability and channel acquired knowledge into effective action. Drucker (2011) and Kotter (2011)’s assertions are confirmed by findings in a survey of leadership practitioners and thinkers by Marques (2010). This study concluded that leaders exhibited widely varied morals, values, integrity, ethics, listening skills, forgiveness, kindness, courage, love, trust and honesty.
Even if it were true that leadership is innate, most of the leadership traits espoused as indicative of great leadership can be taught. Assertions that leadership is innate emphasise the fact that effective leaders are characterised by among others, vision, charisma, strategic thought, inspiration, integrity, confidence, communication and decisiveness. However, in order to direct these traits into action and influence other people, leaders need power. While a few repressive leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un can get by through coercion, (penalties, threats, rewards and punishments), the measure of effective leadership today lies in the ability to leverage any power available to one, towards the attainment of a desired goal (Goleman, 2004). Without coercive power, emotional intelligence is critical. As an indication that leadership can be acquired and nurtured, emotional intelligence has five key components (self-awareness, empathy, motivation, social skills and self-regulation), all of which can be acquired through hard work, learning and exposure to the right conditions (Goleman, 2004).
Further, since leadership is about coping with change and adapting, one of the most important ingredients to succeeding at this task is the ability to learn and apply lessons from previous experiences. Leaders that do not learn from their, and other people’s experiences set themselves up to fail. The emphasis is on learning (Connelly & Rudnick, 2001). The American auto industry, for instance, has fallen behind its Japanese and German competition because of its failure to improve product quality, efficiency, performance and service despite these being clear market trends decades ago. The lack of innovation, motivation and strategic vision came to a head during the 2008/2009 global economic crisis, when GM and Chrysler needed the federal government bailout in order to stay afloat. In the United Kingdom, the global economic crisis also exposed leadership failures by institutions such as Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland. These organisations did not only ignore clear warnings of a market crash and had lived through the Asian crisis in 1997, but they also failed to draw proper lessons and hence the disaster (Gros & Alcidi, 2010).
While it is impossible to define or even describe leadership as a concept, many people know leadership when they see it. Most, if not all the skills necessary for effective leadership identified in this paper can be acquired or encouraged in people (Drucker, 2011; Heifetz & Laurie, 1997; Connelly & Rudnick, 2001). It is undeniable that there are leaders who are born, but such leaders are too few and undependable, given the huge demand for leadership. In addition, it is clear that leadership not only requires continuous learning and adaptation, but is also a function of interactions between the leader and the followers. Leaders at any level, with or without power, must engage followers in confronting challenges, changing perspectives, adjusting values and adopting new habits. As against the perception that leadership is innate, the fact that leadership can be taught and further that it is a process of leader-follower interaction reduces the burden on leaders, because they never have to know all the answers (Heifetz & Laurie, 1997).
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