Tim Kennedy asked:
I don’t want to be taken in by the latest fad in leadership development, but neither do I want to be behind the times when it comes to leadership thinking. Can you give me the inside track on where the experts are at with the research and what’s important for me to consider when it comes to leadership development today?
If you read many of the reviews of how the science of leadership development has evolved, you could be excused for thinking that what we’ve learned has followed an ordered path, with the development of a new approach coinciding with the abandonment of the existing one. For example, the early 20th century was a time when personality was the main focus of research on leadership, while the 50s and 60s saw a shift in focus to what leaders did in the workplace. This was when leader behaviours became the main focus of research efforts.
The challenge for experts at that time was the inconsistency of many of the research results. While certain behavioural styles and specific personality traits did predict leader effectiveness, they did not do so in all situations. But it wasn’t all bad news. There was unrealised value in the approach of the trait theorists, and the researchers of leader behaviours never really went away. Those in the field of leadership began to realise that under different situations, different personality traits and different leader behaviours were more effective at predicting leader performance. This led to the so-called ‘contingency’ theories of leadership. These theories identified the situations under which the different combinations of leader personality traits and behaviours predicted performance. Today, it is widely accepted that both leader personality and leader behaviour are important predictors of leader effectiveness. Far from being conceptual cul-de-sacs, both traits and behaviours are critical to our understanding of leader effectiveness, and both approaches ought to be included in your leadership development programmes.
For you to use personality and behaviour effectively, we would make a couple of recommendations based on the research literature and our experience:
Â• The first is with regard to personality. You need to interpret profiles of multiple personality traits, rather than looking at single dimensions of personality. The rational here is simple. Whether a leader is effective or not is likely to be judged on multiple dimensions. These dimensions are likely to be predicted by different aspects of a leader’s personality – so we need to look at the whole of leaders’ personalities.
Â• The second recommendation is with regard to the way leader behaviour is assessed. Up until now, there has been a tendency to focus on broad dimensions of leader behaviour, for example, whether a leader is task focused or relationship focused. This has served leadership development researchers well for a long time. But there is a need now to move to a more finely grained model of leadership behaviour that focuses on specific aspects of being relationship or task focused. For example, being relationship focused may mean that you are good at developing people, or it may mean that you have high empathy. These different aspects of being relationship focused will predict different leader outcomes.
If you are able to consider the above when using models of personality and behaviour in your leadership development programs, you have a great chance of improving your effectiveness at identifying and developing organisational leadership capability – and not being taken in by the latest fad!