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The “Fluffiness” of Leadership Blogs

peak performance-dougby Doug Wilson, Columnist & Featured Contributor

A Need For Precision And Depth

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap]N A HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW article “The Skills Leaders Need At Every Level” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published the results of a comprehensive survey on leadership skills and attributes. In it over 330,000 managers were surveyed to define the core skills or attributes were needed at all management levels (they used the terms interchangeably) although the priority changed slightly based on the level of the leader. Those critical fifteen leadership skills and attributes are depicted in the chart below.

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Three Leadership Key Result Areas

If one looks at the chart above it appears to be a random list based on priority. If the items on the list are grouped, however, they fall into three important leadership categories.

  1. Working with and through others (people dimensions of leadership).

Without followers there are no leaders. A person may stand-alone for his or her convictions but this does not make a leader. A person may be a hero and risk his or her life for others, but this does not make the person a leader. Leaders only exist if there are followers. As a result a leader must have the ability to work with and through people.

Interestingly, survey respondents listed the most skills in this area and these skills had the highest priorities on the list. While there is no question that working with and through people is a major facet of a leader the amount of attention in this area may also reflect today’s view that leadership is primarily about keeping people satisfied and happy more than going in the right direction or doing the right thing.

  1. The person (characteristics, traits and attributes);

Attributes are defined as qualities, characteristic, traits and features. Are the personal characteristics and attributes of a leader important to their success? Most people would agree.

Recently Travis Bradberry posted an article on LinkedIn entitled “What Makes A Leader” In that post, he asserts:

Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes. Say the word “leader” and most people think of a domineering, take-charge, charismatic individual. People often think of icons from history like General Patton or President Lincoln. But leadership isn’t an adjective. We don’t need to be extroverted or charismatic to practice leadership. And those with charisma don’t automatically lead.”

Later in his “true” definition of a leader (as opposed to Drucker, Bennis and Maxwell), the author again asserts:

No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths to effective leadership.”

Today people study leadership more than ever before. One of the key areas of focus is the character, traits and attributes of a leader. Multitudes of articles are written about critical attributes: integrity, honesty, compassion, openness as well as a host of others.

Personal attributes are essential to successful leadership. People move into leadership positions and fail, not because of the inability to set direction or even the way they work with people but because of character and attributes. While it is true that not all attributes are equally important (for example, extrovert or introvert might be much lower down the priority list, but they are still important attributes), others are critical and foundational. Attributes are overlooked at one’s peril.

Posts like the one above bother me greatly. Not because the examples used are wrong but because they are half-truths. The use of an example that appears rational to justify an approach that is false misleads readers. The author asserts that a leader’s personal attributes have “no impact on leadership.” In fact the diversity of styles and approaches he espouses are fueled by the different attributes leaders possess and those personal attribute are critically important to one’s success as a leader.

  1. Results (performance)

Leaders point direction. The word leader implies movement. Leaders paint the picture of a future state. They describe what success looks like. They define objectives to be accomplished. They outline the playing field so performers can produce in alignment with others. Leaders do not necessarily micromanage (although sometimes it is necessary) by telling people what to do (they generally provide autonomy in the approach) but rather they point direction and allow people to discover how to get there.

In the past, management and leadership scholars considered pointing direction as the first responsibility of a leader. When direction was established, people would join the effort. Thus the first task of leaders was not to keep people happy or motivated but to point the way. Of course the direction the leader points may be good or bad, moral or immoral. The sad state of affairs is that leadership can be focused toward an evil end. There is a tendency today to discount leaders who are moving to an unacceptable goal but many of them are skillful leaders.

The Leader’s Skills and Attributes: A Model

If one re-grouped the characteristics identified in Zenger’s survey into the three key results areas described above, different insights begin to develop. Consider the following diagram:

bThe number beside each item corresponds to the priority listed in Zenger & Folkman’s survey.

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Five Observations And A Few Questions

Observation 1: Leadership rests on a three-legged stool. When a leg is missing or weak, the stool tilts. The three leadership legs do not stand in isolation. They work together and fuel each other (represented by the arrows between them). Leaders do not practice in one area, leave that area and move to a different area. All three work together in every task the leader performs. For example, a leader’s attributes impact both the way the leader views setting direction and the manner in which they work with and through people. Conversely, the leader’s approach to working with people impacts how direction and goals are set. The goals a leader sets reflects how the leader involves and engages with people. It is the unique manner in which all three areas interact that creates individual leadership styles and approaches.Bradberry is accurate in describing the uniqueness of leadership styles but the uniqueness does not stem from the absence of attributes as they postulate but rather because of them.

Question 1: How can the interrelationship between the three areas be developed so that the leader creates maximum synergy?

Leadership-DictionaryObservation 2: Personal attributes ranked most highly by respondents are integrity, technical expertise, seeing the big picture and taking initiative. These attributes are the foundation on which setting direction and people management is built. They also describe the approach, attitude and perspective people wish to see behind every leadership style. Thus there is a strong common attribute bond among successful leaders.

Question 2: If attributes are unimportant (as proposed by Kruse and Bradbury), what are the implications of leadership with no personal attributes? Could any person become a successful leader as long as they learn and practice goal setting and people management skills alone? Don’t personal attributes determine whether the direction and people management will be good or evil, honest or devious?

Observation 3: In the results area the number of successful criteria is fewer than the other two areas although the top two items in this category are prioritized highly.

Question 3. If a leader points the way and people engage with that leader because of their belief in the meaningfulness of that direction, is the results area underwhelmed? If so, what is missing?

Observation 4: Respondents rate inspiring and motivating people as higher in importance than leadership integrity and trust.

Question 4: Does this suggest that people leadership is now considered the primary task of leadership? At a time when levels of trust are at an historic low are integrity and trust less important than the ability to inspire and motivate people? Are followers more concerned about how they are treated than the integrity of their leader? If that is true, what are the implications for organizations?

Observation 5: 47% (7 out of 15) of the items on Zenger’s list are personal attributes. This demonstrates how important respondents feel the attributes of leaders are.

Question 5: If almost half of the critical leadership characteristics relate to the person of the leader how should this be built into early identification, selection and development of leaders?[/message]

Final Thoughts

So what is true? Are personal attributes of leaders important to success or not? You can read the data and decide for yourself.

There are two words of warning.

The first is for LinkedIn readers. Read posts critically. Many skim words but do not think about the words they have skimmed. All posts are someone’s opinion and even though ideas may be cleverly presented to be controversial, appear wise, titillate or just gain approval, not all opinions are based in fact. Without critical thinking every path appears to be right.

The second warning is for authors, like myself, who feel they have something significant to say. Be precise in language and meaning. A number of years ago I heard a preacher bemoan the lack of depth in teaching of the scriptures. He asserted that churches were preaching “sermonettes” and were creating “Christianettes”. That is what is wrong with management today. Readers think they understand a topic because they read a five hundred word post. Writers have a responsibility to present a complete picture of an issue. There is a great responsibility when readers are misled.


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4 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Gosh – not sure where to start in my comments. Great article – you had me at the title. I continue to be disappointed in research that would not have received a passing grade with my very tough research professor. Your admonition to LinkedIn readers is right on…anyone can write and publish anything they want, can claim it is based on “research” and potentially never have stepped into a leadership role.
    We have become so infatuated with “best practice” with no understanding of how and when to generalize the research because everyone looks for the quick hit and doesn’t want to do the difficult work of leading.
    When credible business journals publish articles that fuel the fire – do this simple thing and it’ll be great – we really need a wake up call.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. Perhaps we are simply asking the wrong questions and we are asking the wrong people. Asking followers about leadership is analogous to asking a computer user how to build a computer. What it takes to become a great leader is analogous to becoming a great athlete. The fans never see the behind the scenes training. That is why they are in the stands, instead of on the field.

    If you observe the best leaders, they create problems for their people to solve. While integrity is always critical, the other attributes that followers observe have no relevance. A follower can only make sense of a leader based on what he understands about leadership. If his understanding and experience for BEING a leader is limited, so will his perspective.

    Perhaps we should be asking powerful and effective leaders what it takes for a person to stand for something even though there is no proof it can be done. That is an important
    part of a leaders job.

    • That are multiple “book learned” academics sitting in consultancies and universities who have never managed or led yet thye pontificate on what it takes to lead organizations and people. Until you lface a desperate situation, look it directly in the eye and have to decide how to maintain your principles and deal with the situation, you have no right to give others advice and in fact probably only add confusion to to mix.

      • There is something to what you are saying. Desperate situations can bring the best out of people. In those situations, you learn things about yourself that a book could never give you. It’s the one thing I love about the Olympics. You could desire to be in it. However, if you haven’t trained to compete at that level, you don’t get invited, even if you’ve read every book about it. Organizations could be better served if they took the same approach to find leaders.

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