What are leaders like? (and why this is the wrong question)

What are leaders like? (and why this is the wrong question)

In this second blog post exploring leadership and the role of character development in good leadership, we take a look at what leaders are like. Or rather, we explore why asking this question is not a very good idea and whether there are better questions to give us insights into leaders and leadership. (Leadership development plan)

? to Part 1

Leadership for many is something remote. Something other people do, and often don’t do well. It is something for older, more experienced people. Some may aspire one day to be a leader, others could imagine nothing worse. Leadership development is something that happens after management development. It is something we are invited by others to do, not something we take on to ourselves.

We watch the news and rarely can see ourselves doing what we see leaders doing: standing on stage, delivering speeches, confronting, arguing, playing the political game. It seems not to relate to our journey to work by tube, standing elbow to ribs. Leadership ends up seeming remote from our daily lives and this remoteness disables.

We have a powerful pull to see leaders as someone or something special. Yet the evidence suggests that this is not the case. There has never been a satisfactory answer to the question of what makes a leader. Read the political and historical biographies, watch the TED videos and tv programmes and try to summarise what leaders are like. Are there particular personality factors? A particular pattern of intelligence? A distinctive make up to their character?

It is easy to misstep in thinking about leadership. If we do not separate out the person and the role of ‘the leader’ we are destined to confusion. You might hope that somebody in a leader role would show leadership, but a moments reflection suggests that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Taking or showing leadership is not the same as having the role title ‘leader’.

This is a simple enough idea but one that has far-reaching implications. For example, if we study people who have the role title of leader we will end up listing out some behaviours and attributes that undoubtedly are related to leadership but we will also list out factors that do not relate. This then faces us with making the judgement about which of these attributes actually do relate to leadership, and how we are to make that judgement is not at all clear.

For example, in the UK at present business leaders are far more likely to be men. They are also more likely to be taller than average, to have more prominent jaw-lines, to have come from a particular educational background. They are also more likely to be extrovert, have lower trait anxiety and be more open to experience; they are wealthier and have more affairs. Our instincts are that some of these attributes legitimately relate to leadership and some are a reflection of current biases in who gets into privileged positions. But how are we making this judgement? In a very real way, we already need to have an understanding of what leadership really is before we can start to pick out the traits that distinguish and create a leadership development plan.

Businesses have invested heavily over many years in trying to identify the particular characteristics that pick someone out as having leadership potential. Each large corporate will have their own formula and our experience from consulting to hundreds of these corporates over more than two decades is that there will be some overlap (common traits), but each will have some distinctive parts. Many will emphasise the need for their senior leaders to have a quick mind, or to be extrovert, a good communicator. Some will emphasise curiosity, others emphasise people awareness; some self-belief, others humility, and so on.

When the picture is looked at in totality, it is hard to resist the conclusion that all that ends up being compiled is a list of the traits of humanity. There certainly seems to be no single thread from which the fabric is woven. Nor even a repeated motif in the pattern of the cloth.

This insight can be an uncomfortable one: there is no definitive list of characteristics that sets one person apart as being a leader or having leadership potential. The definitive and distinctive list of leadership qualities remains elusive because there isn’t one. And if there is no definitive list, then perhaps we are all more or less equally capable of leadership.

This conclusion feels at odds with our inner certainty that there simply must be something that sets leaders apart. To understand this, we need to go a little deeper again and in the next blog post we will shift from the question ‘what are leaders like?’ to some more fruitful ones: ‘what are leaders for?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’.

And again, let’s close with some quick personal reflections: are you able to pick out the behaviours and skills you have that others will experience as leadership? Are they the same as those shown by your colleagues around you? Have you ever been in a situation where there was no leadership and leadership was needed? If so, what stopped you from taking the lead? (Leadership development plan)

? Go to Part 3