The myth that great leaders are born and not made is a big barrier to people who believe they are not “natural” leaders. But while a few people possess the personality traits that might make leadership easier for them, research shows that everyone can learn to improve their leadership style.
It’s not bad to be good
Some people also believe that it is the selfish ladder-climbers who get to the top. It is certainly true that there are people who fit this description in management roles and who appear to be successful. Is this good leadership? What would happen in a situation where they need to persuade others to give wholehearted commitment, rather than merely show compliance?
According to research, it is better to show consideration to people who work with you, demonstrating trust, concern, respect and appreciation. Staff not only tend to be more satisfied with leaders who display these qualities, but are also more satisfied with their jobs, are more motivated and perform more highly.
So why are there bad leaders in management positions and what can be done to change things? Research indicates that organisations need to look at how they promote and reward people. What criteria do they look for? How do they support new leaders to learn and improve? Getting these things right is vital if organisations are to have effective, ethical and sustainable leadership.
Leadership and culture
To be a leader, other people need to see you as a leader. Research shows that what people hope for and expect in leaders varies between cultures (as well as within cultures where there will also be differing views).
For example, major international project GLOBE found managers in some countries tend to see risk-taking leaders positively, while others perceive them negatively. Other attributes such as caution, enthusiasm and class-consciousness are viewed differently from culture to culture. These insights can be particularly helpful for organisations working internationally or with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Conversely, GLOBE also shows international agreement on various positive and negative characteristics, such as ruthlessness and egocentricity. Overall, it seems that Charismatic/Value-Based Leadership is seen as positive (though to varying degrees).
This is helpful as it appears related to the widely-researched Transformational Leadership, shown to be effective in numerous studies. This encourages us to be visionary and optimistic, consider individuals, show work is meaningful, encourage questioning, creativity and development, and to personally behave in the ways we hope others might emulate.
Use evidence to improve
So, can leadership theory and research tell you all you need to know? No, sadly, it can’t do that. It can guide you, but can’t cover every varied situation and individual. You also need to apply your experience and knowledge of your own circumstances, and develop an approach of continuous learning and improvement.
Attending an academic course won’t turn you into a great leader. But learning about research findings can help you to improve your leadership in evidence-based ways. You still have to put in the hard work, but using research evidence can give you the confidence to set goals that will take you in the right direction, instead of having to rely on hearsay or trial-and-error to find ways to improve.
Karen Caines teaches on the Leadership Development module of the Aston MBA, an intensive programme that immerses students into the principles of strategic thinking in a business context.
The Leadership Development module uses psychology, social psychology and organisational behaviour to create a deeper understanding of effective leadership.
You can study the Aston MBA online. Find out more at www.astonmba.com.