One of the exercises I often use when teaching university or industry courses in Leadership is called “Colonization.” This exercise involves colonizing a distant location—another planet, a remote location on Earth, etc.
I’ll spare you the details of how the exercise is staged, but the end result is that participants provide a profile of a “candidate” they would like to bring forward as the ideal leader for the new colony. While the candidate is purely fictional, there are some stipulations as to how closely they must remain to reality in the proposed candidate (no super-human abilities such as lifting cars, flying, spitting acid, ability to unify political parties, etc.).
While on the surface it appears that the intent of the exercise is to identify the “perfect leader,” the true purpose it to get participants to examine their personal views of leadership. In putting forth the “ideal” candidate, what I find is that they are typically, 1) Identifying leadership characteristics, traits, and behaviors they find most important in their roles as followers, and 2) Identifying areas they find important, yet have not yet fully developed. This exercise is also useful in pointing out that what may be ideal for one participant, may not be ideal for another.
This notion of identifying leadership traits is not new. In fact, its origins go back to the early 1930s when the concept of “Trait Theory” first gained momentum. Trait theory suggests that ideal leaders exhibit certain traits such as intelligence, height, extraversion, etc., and that these traits reside only in select people, concluding that one can be a successful leader if he/she possesses these natural, inborn traits.
Even today, we find that most leadership books, assessments, performance evaluations, and courses are geared towards identifying and developing a set of traits that are deemed as ideal by those writing, administering, or teaching. Yet Trait Theory has several flaws. As the participants in the exercise find, the list of desired traits is exhaustive, often contradictory, situational, and highly subjective. The bottom line is that what may work for some people or situations, may not work for others. Yet we tend to hold on to Trait Theory in our desire to define what makes leaders great.
One area that does stick out time and time again, however, is that followers tend to resonate with leaders with whom they can identify. In fact, we see this quite clearly in today’s political candidates, and opposing candidates are quick to point out areas in which the opposition “cannot identify with their voters.” While I don’t intend to make this a political discussion, it is clear that people follow leaders with whom they can identify.
Psychologists Reicher, Haslam, and Platow, find in their book The New Psychology of Leadership that a shared sense of identity, a sense of “us” connecting leaders to followers, is one of the most fundamental requirements and predictors of leadership success. We find this factor holds true when we examine the results of 360-degree feedback.
Those leaders who have connected with their employees tend to receive the highest 360 feedback marks. No surprises there. We also find that leaders who score well on 360-degree feedback assessments have results that are similar to their direct reports’ 360 scores. In other words, leaders whose behaviors and traits are most similar to the highest scoring areas of their employees’ 360s tend to score the highest on their own 360s.
Now, this could certainly bring up the cause-versus-effect question. One might ask if this occurs because the leader is most adept at developing employees in the areas in which the leader is naturally strong. Others may argue that because my leader sees things my way, I rate the leader higher. These are both good and valid points.
Regardless of the reason for the correlation, it is clear that effective leaders both represent the identity of their followers because they relate to each other—demonstrating the “us” factor—and shape the identity of the group having created it.
So, next time you see that list of 45 traits required for leadership, keep in mind that few of them matter if the “us factor” isn’t there.