Q: How do you assess the character of a leader? What traits and behaviors do you look for?
A: For nearly a century, researchers have focused on examining traits of individuals to determine the universal qualities that make up a leader. Several indicators have been identified. Leadership style first attracts the attention of followers. Style can be defined as a combination of traits that are consistently displayed by the individual. Following are three traits often associated with a successful leadership style.
The first is self-confidence. A strong belief in one’s abilities and skills makes a leader more likely to take on responsibility that others would tend to shy away from and, in turn, would garner trust from followers. Self-confidence allows leaders to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
A second indicator is the drive to take initiative. This trait is exhibited by persistence and the willingness to take risks. It is linked not only to self-confidence but also to high levels of physical energy and motivation to complete tasks. The leader who takes initiative requires confidence in analyzing a situation and designing functional solutions. A well-defined path gives followers assurance of success.
A third indicator is comfort with reflection on one’s point of view and consequences of his/her decisions. This activity depends on the leader’s ability to process information in a way that is alert to both desired and undesired outcomes, what has and has not worked. Ideally the leader should be proficient in acknowledging constraints faced by those within the organization and competitive challenges on the industry level. It is difficult to do both. Yet sound interpersonal skills allow the leader to listen to other points of view that inform reflection.
While an important element in considering the assessment of a leader, traits are not sufficient to assess effectiveness. The noted Hersey-Blanchard theory of situational leadership reminds us that the leader should not be fixed in any one style or set of traits. Rather the leader must face situations with differing task-related behaviors that allow for productive interaction with followers to ensure that proper functions are performed. This is where trust is built that motivates followers to best use their talents and ingenuity.
Jack Militello is a professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.