On the other side of the spectrum from Trait Theory is a theory of leadership known as Skills Theory. Developed as a theory by Robert Katz in 1955, it postulates that leadership is a combination of:
- Technical skills related to the field in which one operates.
- Human skills relating to communicating with people.
- Conceptual skills related to setting vision.
According to Skills Theory, learned knowledge and skills are significant factors in becoming an effective leader. It doesn’t deny the usefulness of inherent traits but argues that developing skills are essential to leadership. This of course, is the foundation for all of the effort devoted to leadership development.
To my mind, the whole theory falls apart in the use of the term ‘skills’. I don’t see that ‘playing well in the sandbox’ is skill but more of a behaviour. Maybe I’m being a mite pedantic but I see a real difference between skills and behaviours.
Technical skills may be skills but human skills are better defined as soft skills, or behaviours. In reading that last sentence I’m not sure myself if it makes sense. Being able to use Excel is a technical skill but I wouldn’t call ‘being nice to people’ a skill but more of a behaviour. After all, your mother didn’t tell you to skill yourself but to behave yourself.
Maybe that’s it. Skills are what you learned in school and behaviours are things that your mother tried to teach you.
The problem is that a lot of us really nice people in the field of leadership development are trying to teach leadership (which is half skills and half behaviours) as a set of skills that can be learned.
Since learning skills is way easier than learning behaviours, we don’t make much headway in teaching behaviours and that’s why much of the effort in leadership development is wasted.
Back to the original question: What is leadership? I can’t agree with Skills Theory as a good definition of leadership either. Right now, I’m looking for a definition of leadership that combines traits, skills, and behaviours all in a nice package.
To many people, leadership is a set of traits or innate abilities. Those who adhere to this mode of thinking are proponents of what is called Trait Theory. (They also happen to be the ones whose mothers told them they were natural born leaders.)
Trait Theory postulates that people are born with certain traits or qualities that predispose them to success or failure in leadership roles. These traits are hard wired in your brain and genetic. There is some debate on how many traits that one can use to describe people and various proponents of trait theory say either three or five are enough to define people. In looking for stuff on this topic I found lists of personality traits that are hundreds of elements long.
According to the Five Factor Model, the following are the five key personality traits.
- Openness to experience
(Now if you’re like me, you just looked at this list and tried to evaluate where you fit on each of these dimensions. Don’t worry, we like you just the way you are.Well most of us do anyway.)
The main problem with Trait Theory as I see it is that it means that people can’t change or it is so difficult to change people that it isn’t even worth trying. There go all the efforts at using coaches and psychology then to influence traits. If this were true as well the self help industry would be eliminated. Bye Bye Tony Robbins.
So too would leadership training.
This gets into the nature or nurture argument that I tend to think is a waste of time. Yes, there are some genetic traits that are part of one’s makeup but there is so much more that is learned that Trait Theory is too restrictive.
I may be confusing myself again but some work I’ve been doing with a client along with the research I’m doing is leading me to question the nature of leadership. Essentially I’m asking the question I’ve asked before, what is leadership?
There appear to be three central views of leadership:
- As a trait or personality characteristic.
- As a set of behaviours or skills.
- Or finally as a process.
It is the last of these that I haven’t considered before. If you consider leadership as a set of traits then it would be very difficult to train leaders. If you consider it as a set of behaviours then leadership training is difficult and time consuming yet not impossible.
If you consider leadership to be a process then it should be relatively easy to train someone to be a better leader. Interestingly enough, this may be what I’m seeing through research.
I suppose the best situation would be to have a leader with the right traits and behaviours working within a process that supports effective leadership.
I’m wading back into the issue of women business leaders again, partially because of Ontario’s desire to balance out the boards of directors of companies by requiring public companies to set targets for the number of women in senior roles. But what if women don’t want to be directors and in the C Suite?
I thought of this because of an ad in Thursday’s Globe for Rotman’s Directors Program (Calgary graduation) that showed pictures of graduates and only 11 out of 44 graduates were women. In Toronto it was 12 out of 51. I’m sure the Institute of Corporate Directors doesn’t have a quota on women students so maybe women just aren’t as interested in being directors as men.
Women make up only 37% of admissions to MBA programmes, 24% to EMBA programmes and only 42% to undergraduate business programmes. Maybe women just aren’t as interested in business as men.
However women do make up 48% of law school graduates and 47% of medical school graduates. Maybe women find law and medicine more interesting than business.
Maybe we should stop trying to impose one set of values and demand equality when that is an unrealistic objective.
I’ve been pondering this issue of being able to think and communicate under pressure. It comes up on lists of things leaders need to be able to do to be effective leaders. If we’re naturally no good at processes such as these when we’re under pressure, then what will improving them do. We’ll just suck a little less.
So instead of learning to think under pressure, perhaps what we need to do is remove the pressure. Obfuscate, delay, prevaricate, walk away. Anything that enables us to slow down and think through the logic and emotions of the situation, instead of having to try to think and communicate more clearly in the heat of the battle.
You might not be able to do that in public speaking or other fixed events but all other interactions that are pressure filled leave room for procrastination as a way to deal with choking.
While there is no fancy term for it like Glassophobia, an inability to think or speak when under pressure is much the same as the reaction people have to speaking to an audience. This is choking. The thing is though that you need to be able to work effectively under pressure to succeed nowadays.
What’s happening is that in pressure filled situations, the brain’s processing power which is known as working memory is depleted. Working memory is located in the pre-frontal cortex and is used for temporary storage for information relevant to whatever it is you are doing.
When working memory becomes overburdened, people lose the brain power they particularly need in pressure filled situations. This is what happens when you choke and I think its affect is even greater for people who have to speak publicly when they are not used to doing so.
I bet you never thought you would get a biology lesson when you started reading this blog but I thought if you understood why you choke when you do, it might alleviate the pain. I have a habit of choking when I need to remember someone’s name. So if I run into you on the street and look flummoxed, it’s just because I’m choking and can’t for the life of me remember your name.
Getting off controversial topics for awhile, I was reminded on the weekend about one woman I’ve worked with in the past who is enjoying an excellent career but is desperately afraid of public speaking. And there’s even a word for it: Glossophobia.
Unfortunately these days, if you want a career that progresses into senior management you’ll have to get good at this, no matter how distasteful it is.
There’s lots and lots of stuff on the web on why this occurs: fear of failure, inability to be vulnerable, self-doubt. I was even reading an archaeological perspective on the subject wherein people are afraid to rise up in a tribe for fear of being kicked out and thus not being defended and ending up being eaten by sabre toothed tigers.
The thing to remember is, no one is thinking about you anyway. They’re all too busy thinking about themselves to waste time thinking about you. If you don’t believe me, wait 30 days after you’ve done a presentation and ask anyone there what they thought of your presentation.
Chances are, unless it was the worst one they’ve ever seen or the best, they won’t remember a thing you said or how you said it. But if they happened to ask a question at your presentation, they’ll remember what the question was, how smart it made them sound, and how everyone was in awe of their brilliance.
So stop worrying about public speaking. There are no sabre-toothed tigers anymore, even if some of your co-workers look like they are ready to tear you limb from limb.
I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to figure out what leadership is, what conditions support good leadership and how people learn to be leaders. I’m continually surprised by what I learn and think this is a marvellous topic because it is so complex and so rooted in human dynamics.
Until this week I hadn’t thought about whether women are or are not better leaders than men. Frankly it had never crossed my mind to think of the issue but thanks to Rob Ford and other male-dominated scandals, I waded in fearful of the minefield and potential backlash.
I have been trying to boil down leadership to a common set of conditions under which all sorts of behaviours can be exhibited. In previous posts I had identified leadership as meeting follower needs for vision, to be cared for, to understand and be understood and to be motivated.
I have been debating with myself and others recently as to whether leadership is all emotional and was leaning that way until this week. I’m now of the opinion that leadership is the ability to use a balanced set of behavioural, emotional and intellectual skills to get things done through other people.
And this is why women make better leaders than men. Women make better use of behavioural and emotional skills than men do. While we may have equal intellectual skills (although a number of women I know will debate this), I think that most men would agree that women are more in tune emotionally and exhibit better behavioural control than men do.
I used to say that men have no emotions and now know this to be misstated, men just don’t understand their emotions, they frequently lack emotional intelligence. And this hampers our ability to be better leaders.
I’m wading carefully into this issue of women as leaders, trying not to piss anyone off. The question remains, if women make better leaders than men, why are there fewer of them in the C Suite? This is to me, a paradox of ego.
My own experience is that women don’t have egos the size of mens. A man’s ego will say, “I can do that” where a woman will say “Can I do that?” I know this is a gross generalization but for a well publicized example, look at Cheryl Sandberg. The author of the book, Lean In is COO of Facebook.
In an interview for The Guardian , she goes on to identify “behaviours exhibited by women in the workplace – an unwillingness to ask for more money; a tendency, in meetings, to hold back; a conservatism in estimating their self-worth – as the warping effect of historical and ongoing gender bias. Guys in her office go for promotion when they have a fraction of the necessary skills, she notes; women, by and large, wait until they have 100%. And wait to be asked, or rather, cajoled into applying.”
Cheryl’s story of her own negotiation for her compensation at Facebook is an excellent example of just that thinking at work.
This is all a function of ego. The irony is that this is one of the factors that make women better leaders. This lack of ego. It isn’t all about them so they can do a better job meeting employee needs.
So a lack of ego makes women better leaders but hinders their rise to positions of leadership. Human behaviour sure is a funny thing eh?
So research says that women leaders are better than men when they are rated in 360 degree surveys but I guess the question remains: do they get better results? Rather hard to measure this yet as the takeover of the C suite by women is not yet complete. But there are two studies that I have found that are indicative.
The first study relates to women on the board of Directors and was reported on Bloomberg. “Shares of companies with a market capitalization of more than $10 billion and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent worldwide over a period of six years, according to a report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute.”
A blog on Nasdaq reported reported “Fortune 500 companies that had a woman at the helm for all of 2009 were up an average 50%.” And according to Forbes: “as a group they outperformed the overall market–companies dominated by male chief executives–by 28%, on average, and topped their respective industries by 15% [in 2010].”
So if the research is correct and women leaders are rated better and get better results, why are they better? What is it that makes women better leaders and what can we men learn from that?