The Competency (Trait) Perspective - Principles of Management

People have always been interested in personal characteristics, or traits, that distinguish great leaders from the rest of us. The “great person” theory of leadership assumes that leaders are “born, not made” and that leaders are gifted with traits such as tireless energy, penetrating intuition, uncanny foresight, and irresistible persuasive powers. During the 1930s and 1940s hundreds of trait studies were conducted in an effort to identify the traits that marked people for greatness.

Although this mass of literature yielded endless lists of traits, a lack of consistency across studies led to widespread disillusionment with the trait approach to leadership. By the 1970s research on the personality traits of leaders seemed to have reached a dead end.

However, as so often happens with the history of ideas, the notion that some universal traits are associated with effective leaders reemerged. Reexamination of earlier studies suggested that certain personality traits—such as intelligence, motivation, drive, self-confidence, and desire for power—might be associated with effective leadership.

Subsequent research has suggested that several traits might be important predictors of effective leadership, including strategic thinking ability, achievement motivation, power motivation, charismatic traits, and emotional intelligence. Some of these traits have been renamed “competencies,” implying that they can be acquired through learning. However, despite a vast supply of literature there is still no agreement about which of these traits are important or necessary.

STRATEGIC THINKING

Strategic thinking refers to the cognitive ability to analyze a complex situation, abstract from it, and draw conclusions about the best strategy for the firm to follow. Strategic thinking requires a combination of intelligence and reasoning skills. People with a talent for big picture strategic thinking can cut straight through a lot of messy data and get to the heart of an issue.

They are skilled at analyzing an industry, understanding competitive dynamics, and discerning what is important for the firm. They are the opposite of people who cannot see the forest for the trees—they see the entire forest with great clarity.

It has been argued that many great leaders have had this visionary competency. Winston Churchill, Britain’s leader during World War II, understood in the early 1930s that the rise of Nazi Germany was a profound threat to peace in Europe. He saw the big strategic picture and repeatedly warned the British government about it in the years before the outbreak of war, but to no avail.

Only after Germany invaded Poland in 1939 did the political majority in Britain concede that he had been correct and turn to him to lead the country. In May 1945 Churchill again demonstrated his strategic thinking abilities when we warned President Harry Truman that the Soviets were erecting an “Iron Curtain” across Europe. Churchill urged Truman not to authorize the withdrawal of American forces from parts of Eastern Germany, arguing that the U.S. presence would be replaced by Soviet control.

Truman did not heed Churchill’s warning, and an Iron Curtain dropped across Central Europe and remained there for the next 40 years. Bill Gates is another example of a leader who has demonstrated strategic thinking. A few years ago this author had the opportunity to interview Gates about Microsoft’s strategy.

Gates was still CEO of Microsoft and was very much the chief strategist. I arrived at theinterview with a long list of questions for Gates about changes taking place in the computer and communications industries and about Microsoft’s strategy. As it turned out, there was no need to ask any of the questions.

Gates knew I was interested in learning more about Microsoft’s strategy, and he immediately launched into a high-level summary of changes taking place in the environment, how they were impacting Microsoft and might in the future, what competitors were doing, and what Microsoft’s strategy would be. It was a brilliant intellectual performance. When he had finished, Gates had answered every single question on the list without a single one being asked, providing a compelling and coherent summery of Microsoft’s strategy.

Leaders like Bill Gates and Winston Churchill embody the cognitive ability to see the big picture. Both individuals were naturally endowed with high intelligence and superior reasoning ability, letting them see what others could not—constructing mental maps to navigate the terrain they confronted. Although intelligence is a natural gift, some people believe that reasoning ability can to some extent be acquired.

With appropriate education, aspiring leaders can be taught how to look at the big picture. Indeed, many of the models for strategic analysis that are taught in business schools, such as Porter’s competitive forces model, are designed to do just that.

ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION

Achievement motivation is the unconscious concern for achieving excellence in accomplishments through one’s individual efforts. Achievement-motivated individuals set challenging goals for themselves, assume personal responsibility for goal accomplishment, are persistent in pursuing those goals, take calculated risks to achieve their goals, and actively use information for feedback, adjusting their efforts as necessary. In other words, achievement-motivated individuals have a high degree of intrinsic drive.

They are goaldriven. They know what they want to achieve, work hard toward that end, will take risks when necessary, and do not blame others if they fail to attain their goals.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was an ambitious individual who had his sights set from youth on attaining high political office. Johnson was driven and worked long and hard to attain his goals. As such, he embodied achievement motivation.

The same can be said of Bill Gates. From an early age Gates wanted to be a successful entrepreneur. As teenagers he and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen would look through issues of Forbes magazine, asking how people got onto the Forbes list of the richest people in America. Gates wanted to be one of them. Like Johnson, he was also a risk taker. When he saw an opportunity to profit from the emergence of the personal computer, he dropped out of Harvard to start his own company (Microsoft)—something most people would never do.

POWER MOTIVATION

Power motivation is defined as the unconscious drive to acquire status and power and to have an impact on others. Psychologist David McClelland argues that effective leaders want to accumulate power so they can influence others, and that they do this because it gives them intrinsic satisfaction. The power motivation is necessary for leadership effectiveness, according to McClelland, because getting things done in organizations requires individuals to accumulate power and use it to influence others.

However, McClelland stresses that effective leaders also demonstrate a high concern for the moral exercise of power. Effective leaders act with integrity. Employees will not follow leaders willingly unless they trust them, and trust is derived from integrity. Leadership effectiveness, therefore, requires more than power motivation: It requires an ability to use that power in a just fashion that earns the respect and commitment of followers.

Interestingly, several large-scale studies have reported that integrity or honesty is the most important leadership characteristic. Employees want honest leaders whom they can trust.

CHARISMA

Robert House has proposed that charisma is also an important trait of effective leaders. Charisma refers to the ability that some people have to charm or influence others. Charismatic individuals are often said to have “magnetic” personalities that are larger than life and that draw others toward them. Charismatic leaders have exceptionally high self-confidence, strength of conviction, and assertiveness or social dominance, and they are often superb communicators.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is generally viewed as quite charismatic, even by those who disagree with his politics. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple computer, is also regarded as charismatic, as was Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. Charismatic leaders are able to command the loyalty of their followers, and this can make them particularly effective.

Unfortunately some charismatic leaders have used their charisma to do harm. Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple religious cult, used his charisma first to persuade the 1,000 or so members of his church to move from San Francisco to Guyana with him, and then in 1978 to convince them to participate in a mass suicide that left 914 people dead.

Management writer Jim Collins has recently argued that although charismatic leaders can be effective, charisma can also work against effective leadership. 22 In Collins’s view, leaders with charismatic personalities can use their charm to get people to do things that defy rational logic (witness Jim Jones). Leaders who lack charisma, however, have to rely on logic, fact, reason, and data to win arguments—and that can produce better decisions. Collins points to Walgreen CEO Charles R. Walgreen, who lacked charisma but built a great company nonetheless.

Another example would be David Glass, who succeeded Sam Walton as CEO of Wal-Mart and helped to build Wal-Mart into the dominant enterprise it is today. Glass lacked charisma, but no one would disagree that he was an effective leader.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

A controversial contributor to the trait approach to leadership is a perspective called emotional intelligence , which refers to the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions. The concept has been popularized by writer and consultant Daniel Goleman, who argues that emotional intelligence is a bundle of related competencies that many effective leaders exhibit. According to Goleman, the key components of emotional intelligence are these:

  • Self-awareness—the ability to understand one’s own moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.
  • Self-regulation—the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses or moods and to think before acting.
  • Motivation—a passion for work that goes beyond money or status, and a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.
  • Empathy—understanding the feelings and viewpoints of subordinates, and taking those into account when making decisions.
  • Social skills—friendliness with a purpose.

Goleman asserts that leaders who possess these attributes—who exhibit a high degree of emotional intelligence—tend to be more effective than those who lack them. Their self-awareness and self-regulation elicit the trust and confidence of subordinates. In Goleman’s view, people respect leaders who, because they are self-aware, recognize their own limitations and, because they are self-regulating, consider decisions carefully.

Goleman also argues that self-aware and self-regulating individuals tend to be more self-confident and therefore are better able to cope with ambiguity and are more open to change. Strong motivation exhibited in a passion for work can also be infectious, helping to persuade others to join in pursuit of a common goal or organizational mission. Finally, strong empathy and social skills can help leaders earn the loyalty of subordinates.

Empathetic and socially adept individuals tend to be skilled at managing disputes, can find common ground and purpose among diverse constituencies, and can move people in a desired direction. They can also build a network of allies.

Goleman cites some limited data to support the emotional intelligence view. In a 1996 study of a food and beverage company, David McClelland found that when senior managers had a critical mass of emotional intelligence competencies, their divisions outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20 percent. Meanwhile divisional leaders without that critical mass of competencies underperformed their goals by almost the same amount.

Goleman states that his own research suggests that although intelligence and cognitive skills such as big picture thinking predict leadership effectiveness, nearly 90 percent of the difference between star performers and average performers in senior leadership positions can be attributed to emotional intelligence factors. (Interestingly, Goleman’s own research has not been published, so we do not know how robust his findings and research methodology actually are.)

The emotional intelligence perspective has some appeal and has certainly generated considerable interest, but several writers have attacked it for being defined so broadly that it lacks any real discriminating power. In a stinging critique, the highly regarded management scholar Ed Locke states that the definition of emotional intelligence is “preposterously all-encompassing.” Critics such as Locke also point out that the evidence in favor of emotional intelligence is sketchy at best and is derived from unpublished studies and proprietary data sets that others cannot see.

He also notes that those who argue that emotional intelligence is an important construct are academics turned consultants who have made a fortune out of the concept and have a stake in promoting it.

Is Locke correct? It is difficult to say. Resolution of the increasingly vitriolic debate about emotional intelligence awaits detailed research either confirming or falsifying the main proposition of the emotional intelligence perspective on competencies: that the self-regulation of emotions contributes to leadership effectiveness.

LIMITATIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

A naive reading of the trait (or competency) perspective on leadership might lead one to believe that all of the traits just discussed are needed for effective leadership, but this is not the case. Not all the traits are equally important, and there are certainly examples of effective leaders who do not possess all of these traits. Perhaps some traits are more critical in certain situations than others are.

For example, charisma may be particularly valuable when a leader needs to convince employees to commit to a widespread program of organizational change, rejecting the status quo and moving toward a new configuration of strategy and organization architecture. The importance of different traits for effective leadership, therefore, is context dependent.

What works in one situation might not in another. Moreover, as we saw in the case of emotional intelligence and charisma, there is still a lack of agreement over the validity and importance of some of these traits—both as coherent constructs and as predictors of leadership effectiveness.

Although the trait perspective seems to suggest that effective leaders are born, not made, again this is not strictly true. We are all gifted with a certain level of intelligence, drive, and reasoning ability; some competencies can be acquired, or at least improved, through learning.

Goleman, for example, argues that although emotional intelligence is partly innate, leaders can enhance their emotional intelligence through training. They can learn to become more self-regulating and self-aware, to put themselves in the shoes of others and develop empathy. To the extent that they are successful, this may improve their effectiveness as leaders. Moreover, as stated already, leaders can improve their strategic thinking ability by using frameworks such as Porter’s competitive forces model that help them see the big picture.


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