Leadership Characteristics

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‘Let’s take first the Qualities Approach – what you are. You may recall that when the first academic attempts were made to identify the necessary and desirable qualities of leadership it produced considerable confusion: lots of lists of leadership qualities were produced and there was apparently very little agreement between them. We have about 17,000 words in the English language to describe personality or character traits and so there is a considerable choice! Therefore those who were trying to study leadership on an empirical or “behavioural” science basis in America after the Second World War tended to dismiss the Qualities Approach as a busted flush on the grounds that no one had discovered the qualities that make a born leader.’

‘Surely they were right?’ interjected the young chief executive.

‘Not really. The error they made was that they were looking for the appearance of the same word in the different lists, such as courage or initiative. What they should have done was to cluster words into concepts, or, if you like, sets of synonyms around a core idea. So that, for example, there is a set of words that revolve like satellites around the nucleus concept of a bold and determined attitude that is undaunted by difficulties and fearless in the face of danger: backbone, courage, fortitude, grit, guts, resolution, spirit or tenacity.

The chief executive looked puzzled. ‘But didn’t I read somewhere that there are no synonyms in the English language?’ he queried.

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I Cannot Hear What You Say Because What You Are Thunders At Me

Zulu proverb

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‘No exact synonyms,’ I agreed, ‘but nearly the same meaning in some or all senses. For words gather moss over time – overtones or nuances that cling to them. All the above words, for instance, when used loosely indicate the same core concept. Used more precisely, however, there is a distinction between, say, courage – the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty – and tenacity. The latter has overtones of firm determination to achieve one’s ends, with hints of stubborn persistence and unwillingness to admit defeat.

‘In a similar way there is a distinction between character and personality, though both point to a bundle of traits, innate and learned, that distinguish one person from another. Character often points to an aggregate of moral qualities by which a person is judged apart from their intelligence, competence, temperament or special talents. Personality suggests more the whole indefinable impression received of a specific person.’

‘To me character spells moral forcefulness, personality emotional appeal,’ said the young chief executive. After some moments of reflection he continued: ‘It’s rather like colours. At home we are redecorating the kitchen at present and the paint catalogues offer an amazing range of different whites or yellows. It’s as if courage and tenacity are two shades of yellow.’

‘Not the greatest choice of colour!’ I laughed.

‘The next step I made was to distinguish between typical and generic leadership characteristics.’

The young chief executive asked me to explain the differences. I said that in my view leaders tend to exemplify or personify the qualities or attributes that are typical of the group to which they belong. For example, physical courage is a typical quality in the armed services, because all soldiers, sailors and airmen, whatever their rank, leaders or not, need a degree of physical courage. In other words, it’s a military virtue. What effective military leaders do is to exemplify the key typical qualities expected in their milieu. And we can apply the same principle, I argued, to nurses, accountants, salesmen, doctors, academics, and so on. In every field of human endeavour you can specify – or its practitioners can – five or six key qualities required in a good nurse, teacher, engineer etc. These ‘local’ qualities are what I call the typical ones, and together they form – or at least a ‘critical mass’ of them form – a necessary condition for leadership. It is easy to find them: all you have to do is get a few focus groups of wise professionals in any field to list them. You can grade the responses roughly into three categories according to the strength of agreement as follows:

MUST — the essential attributes:

SHOULD – highly desirable ones;

COULD – characteristics that enhance but are not vital.

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Nothing Great In This World Was Achieved Without Enthusiasm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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‘But you are not saying, are you,’ protested the young chief executive, ‘that having the typical military qualities or virtues such as courage makes you a military leader, or that having the five or six characteristics of, say, a good research scientist makes you the leader of a laboratory? I play in an amateur orchestra and I can think of lots of musicians who have all the qualities of musicality, but they don’t become conductors. It doesn’t quite add up.’

‘It’s possible that you are confusing two ideas that should be kept distinct, namely necessary and sufficient conditions,’ I replied. ‘In science, these terms drawn from logic are useful for untangling intuitions about cause-and-effect relationships. For example, it is a necessary condition for certain chemical reactions that they take place in solution. But the fact of these chemicals being in solution does not guarantee that they will react with each other. Therefore, being in solution is not a sufficient condition that these chemicals will react. In general, as I understand it, scientists find it useful to agree on necessary conditions before they feel in a position to discuss sufficient conditions.’

‘That sounds a most useful distinction and it’s easy to grasp,’ said the young chief executive.

The young chief executive glanced back through his notes and then continued: ‘Using this tool, can we not now identify the necessary conditions that lead people to accept someone as a leader? I suggest that what you called the set of contextual or typical qualities forms one necessary condition. The potential followers have to see that the leader is like them in all important respects but unlike them – different or ‘better’ if you like – in other key respects. Moreover, I suggest that the more generic qualities of leadership belong here too. For a person is a whole. It would be artificial to divide their personality or character up into typical and generic qualities. Anyway, we have yet to identify these universal hallmarks of all good leaders – the generic ones I mean.’

‘Why don’t you help me to identify them? What would you place at the top of the list?’

Our discussions on the various contenders for universal leadership virtues ranged far and wide. Eventually, however, we homed in on the following characteristics:

  • Enthusiasm – a state of extreme readiness and interest in some prospective action or subject, together with a willingness to be involved in it. It leads to activity undertaken with gusto, verve and exuberance.
  • Integrity – moral soundness or excellence: the undeviating adherence to truth and a code of values. Integrity implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge. It’s the quality that inspires trust in others.
  • Warmth – a positive emotion, indicating sincere interest in or affection for others. It is allied to humanity – showing basic human attributes such as kindness and consideration.
  • Courage – firmness of mind and spirit in the face of danger or extreme difficulty; the capacity to be a risk-taker.
  • Judgement – the mental processes that lead to sound decisionmaking and problem-solving and estimates of people.
  • Tough but fair – being without softness, especially to oneself, realistic and unsentimental; being strong or firm, but flexible; and being even-handed in all one’s dealings with the team, ie not having favourites.
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The Inspirational Leader
by John Adair
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