The recent discovery of a leadership gene has reignited debate around the historically popular concept of a magic leadership trait. Research from the University College London indicates that there is a gene associated with directing and coordinating people. Does this mean that some have an innate advantage to gaining upper-level positions over others? While leaders across the nation offer self-congratulatory pats on the back for beating natural selection, let’s step back and reassess what this means for future leadership debate.
Research on leadership is often leader-centric and this really is quite surprising. One problem with this type of research is that it can misdirect us to believe that leaders are a standalone entity. If this were true then leaders would always be able to influence the behaviour of others, in any situation - which is not the case. There are no leaders without followers and one style of leadership does not suit all contexts. We understand that leadership is a process of influence toward the achievement of certain goals and that, importantly, it is a reciprocal process. The attribution theory of leadership posits that when a person observes a leadership act that is linked to a result, they will attribute the same leadership traits to individuals nearest the result the next time they observe it. The pendulum can swing both ways on this one, if the results are negative, we readily associate them with a leader. According to this theory, leadership is not so much an inherent capability, but the perception of followers. However, this does not make it any less real. For this reason there is a gap in the many publications on understanding a successful leader, because understanding followers is equally critical to the process.
Just as we need to consider the followers, so too is it important to be aware of the environment in which leadership occurs. Contingency theorists argue that the ability to lead is invariably affected by the experience and knowledge of employees, their willingness to perform for reward, the complexity of the tasks performed, and the level of formalisation of the company. These variables can define the differences between a supervisor, manager or leader, and can determine if a leader’s style will be grounded in transactions or transformation. If you are looking for a change agent you will need more than a transaction-based manager; visionary leaders communicate a strategic goal, motivate employees toward it and empower them to achieve it. Visionary leaders have several traits in common: namely confidence in people, consistently value-driven, a focus on learning, and a capacity to deal with uncertainty.
The trait theory of leadership is not new and has had periods of prominence in recent decades. Within this view individuals have personal traits that make them a good leader. There can be no argument that self-confidence, business know-how, and impression and change management skills are critical to successful leadership, but not all people with these characteristics lead. What’s equally crucial is that a leader’s style, be it democratic, authoritarian or visionary, is congruent with the environment. There is no best approach or best individual, but who can best fit the situation. After all, power is only official when subordinates recognise it. In this sense a leader’s style should be directly linked to the needs and outcomes of the company and all of its stakeholders.
It seems that despite their God-given talents, leaders still have a difficult road ahead of them. Fred Fiedler complicated matters further when he proposed that a leader’s traits are only effective when they are knowledgeable, authoritative, not under stress, and have strong interpersonal skills. This last point is critical because maintaining relationships is central to a leader’s core functions, where leaders and followers form a collective process. The concept of leaders with a genetic bias will no doubt inspire fresh insight into the subject, but what remains is that leaders should empower followers and the conditions under which they lead matter.
Research:Bowditch, J. (2009) A Primer on Organizational Behavior, 7th Edition. John Wiley & Sons.