Lead by Embodying the Right Personal Qualities
Cluster 1 (upper left) focuses on the qualities that are thought
to universally contribute to leadership. It suggests that leadership
requires embodying particular personal qualities that result in
being the right kind of person. The earliest versions of these
theories of leadership posited the “Great Man” theory
of leadership, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century
when only men were thought to be leaders. This was followed by
a wave of "trait" theories that tried to specify the
particular qualities that accounted for leadership. An assumption
in these earlier theories was that leaders are born, not made.
Interest in these early theories waned in 1930's and 1940's,
as researchers were unable to agree on which qualities accounted
for leadership. However, the notion that the personal qualities
of a leader are important has proved to have enduring value.
There was a resurgence of theories emphasizing character in the
1980's. More recent version of these theories assume that the
desired qualities can be learned, rather than the earlier emphasis
that leaders were born with the required qualities. Talk began
to be heard of "transformational" leadership (e.g.,
Burns) and then "charismatic" leadership (e.g., Conger).
In this approach the leader's role is to help followers reach
their full potential, raising their motivation and even their
morality. The classic examples here are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin
Luther King. Nelson Mandela would be another more recent addition
to the list.
A weakness of these theories is that they tend to emphasize the
"larger than life" character of leaders. This has a
downside. While it may be inspirational to review the contribution
of political leaders like Gandhi, or corporate leaders such as
Jack Welch, it could just as easily be disheartening. Such an
emphasis implicitly discourages "ordinary" people from
believing that they can become effective leaders. A subtler limitation
of this cluster is that even if one did find a correlation between
leadership and particular traits, it doesn't follow that having
those traits leads to leadership.
Nonetheless, the emphasis on a leader's character continues to
attract rich contributions to advice on leadership and is the
source of some of the most interesting recent contributions (e.g.,
Senge et al).
The value of this cluster for leadership
development is that it:
- Reinforces the importance of recognizing that your most valuable
tool as a leader is yourself.
- Calls attention to the critical role of self knowledge, knowing
your strengths and your limits.
- Makes clear the importance of developing yourself fully as
a person (i.e., developing your emotional intelligence, your
2. Lead by Doing the Right Things
Cluster 2 (lower left) focuses on what leaders actually do without
emphasizing their underlying character. One leads by doing the
right things, and those things are thought to be consistent, regardless
of the particular situation. This perspective began to emerge
in the 1940s and 50s and was the beginning of attention to leadership
"style". Many of the behavioral frameworks pointed to
two behaviors, relating to tasks and to relationships. A popular
example was the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid, which appeared in
about 1960 and was widely used in management training. The Grid
implied that there is one best style that should always be used:
one combining high emphasis on both task and relationship behavior.
This is an intuitive appealing notion, but it is unsupported by
Clearly there is some wisdom in the perspective of this cluster.
It seems common sense to assume that it's not enough just to show
up embodying your qualities; it matters what you as a leader do.
Certain behaviors tend to get mentioned again and again (e.g.,
creating a vision, walking the talk), so it seems reasonable to
suppose that, on average, some actions are better than others.
Taking an inclusive view of "behavior", this cluster
invites attention to how leaders think about their role. It suggests
that some conceptions of leadership are consistently more potent
than others (see Heifetz for a thoughtful definition of leadership).
But although this cluster adds value by calling attention to
what leaders actually do, most of its proponents tend to neglect
the importance of the motivation and intention of the person undertaking
the action. This is unfortunate. Can anyone just pick up a practice
and use it effectively? Presumably not. Underlying intention may
be decisive, as may skill. And despite the intuitive appeal of
the notion that some actions are consistently the right thing
to do, no agreement on what those actions are has emerged. Indeed,
observing truly extraordinary leaders suggests that their behavior
often has a paradoxical quality that is not easily summarized
in a ' to do' list. Still, this cluster continues to attract many
new and valuable contributions.
Our view is that the best way to leverage this Cluster is to
begin to be clear on your High Performance Leadership Pattern,
i.e., the things that you consistently do when you get extraordinary
results. From that foundation, you can draw upon this literature
- Increase your awareness of how your behavior changes at different
points in the leadership cycle.
- Enrich your fundamental leadership approach by identifying
patterns of thought and behavior that strengthen and extend
your basic patterns or fill in missing gaps.
3. Lead by Adapting What You Do to Fit the
Many of the theories that emphasize behavior also take the view
that leaders should adapt their behavior to the situation. Situational
leadership, which became very popular in the 1960s and is still
a visible force, illustrates this approach. Rather than assuming
that "one size fits all", leaders adjust their approach
to take into account various realities of the particular situation.
This reasoning is quite compelling. Some of these theories, like
Situational Leadership, are able to offer simple, actionable advice
(i.e., adjust the degree of direction and support you offer your
subordinates to take into account their level of commitment and
skill). To be sure, not all of these theories are so simple and
readily usable (e.g., Vroom and Jago).
Despite these strengths, most theories of this kind suffer to
some degree from an assumption that we believe is fundamentally
flawed. They imply that a leader can select a style as if it were
one of a set of golf clubs with which the leader is equally skilled.
There is good reason to doubt this is true. Everyone has strengths
and limits that suit them for some situations more than others.
Trying to use a style that does not come naturally simply may
not work, as it may be executed in such a labored and non-confident
way as to come across as phony and manipulative. The theories
that claim the most general usefulness (such as the menu of six
styles recommended by Primal Leadership) are the most vulnerable
to the limits of this assumption. How many leaders can readily
switch from a "commanding" to a "coaching"
Another limit of this Cluster is that there is no theory that
covers all situations. Each one tends to have a particular emphasis
that ignores others. There is no map to guide a leader in judging
whether it's more important to focus on the nature of your subordinates,
as recommended by Situational Leadership, pay attention to the
nature of the decision being made, as in Normative Theory, or
attend to the overall character of the situation, as recommended
in Primal Leadership.
It's also the case that one of the situational factors that is
usually overlooked in these theories is time. Most do not take
into account the need for leaders to do different things at different
stages of a leadership initiative (Kotter's work is one of several
exceptions.) Nonetheless, this Cluster contains very substantial
contributions and continues to attract more.
The usefulness of this Cluster as a resource for leadership development
is that it:
- Provides suggestions on where it could make sense to supplement/adapt
your High Performance Leadership Pattern in order to be more
fully responsive to the particular situation (e.g., the situation
of taking on a new leadership role).
4. Lead by Selecting/Adapting the Situation
to Fit You
Cluster 4 (upper right) calls attention to the power of matching
a leader's qualities to the situation. The basic idea is to choose
situations in which you can succeed. This notion makes a lot of
sense. We all have a different combination of strengths and limits
and it stands to reason that we'll be more effective in some situations
than others. Yet for many years there was only one well known
theory of this type (Fiedler's) and it's more well known to researchers
than to managers. The reason may be the implication that, since
traits are not easily changed, some people are not suited for
some leadership situations.
In the last few years there have been some additions to this
Cluster. The approach taken by the Gallup Organization (described
in Buckingham and Clifton) fits here. They emphasize identifying
your strengths and building on them. Rather than adapt to situations
that do not suit your style, they suggest you should avoid them
or assign them to others who are suited for them.
A related idea is that there is limited value in focusing leadership
development on your deficiencies. A person could spend a long
time trying to get better in an area of weakness and never become
more than mediocre. Therefore, leaders may get higher leverage
in further developing their strengths than from trying to shore
up areas of mediocrity.
One risk of this cluster is that it could tacitly encourage leaders
to ignore any area where they are not strong. Great strengths
are often accompanied by great weaknesses and ignoring them is
risky. Most of these theories acknowledge that risk, and some
point in particular to addressing "fatal flaws", but
these caveats could easily be overlooked by leaders who are eager
to avoid any areas of vulnerability. This can be a career trap,
as other people can come to see you as effective only in a narrow
class of situations and offer you only them. It is similar to
an actor becoming "type cast".
Another limitation of this perspective is that leaders can't
always choose their situation. You may not be in control of your
destiny. You may just have to do as well as you can where you
happen to be. Still, the notion of being mindful of where you
are likely to be most successful, and factoring that into your
career moves, makes enormous sense. By keeping the conditions
that work best for them in mind, leaders who find themselves in
situations that don't suit their styles can take steps to compensate,
an area where some of these theories offer useful advice.
It is important to acknowledge two dimensions to "fit".
One to which we give the most emphasis in the seminar is how well
the situation suits your high performance leadership style and
the personal preferences that are related to your Temperament.
However, a viewpoint with increasing momentum calls attention
to alignment with your "purpose" as the foundation for
both an authentic life and effective leadership. From this perspective
a leader would ask whether a particular situation poses an opportunity
to address the values to which he or she is committed.
These two dimensions can easily conflict. You may choose to put
yourself in a situation that is not optimal for you from a style
perspective because you want to solve a problem that you care
about. A strand of writing on the value of defining your "life
brand" combines these two perspectives.
The works in this cluster make a contribution to leadership development
in one or more of the following ways. They:
- Offer tools for increasing your awareness of your strengths
(e.g., Buckingham, et al).
- Increase your ability to manage your career by being clear
on your strengths (and your values) and making sure that to
the extent possible you choose situations in which there is
a good match (e.g., Drucker).
- Invite you to look and listen deeply within yourself to uncover
the “calling” that will most fully enable you to
express your values and talents and make a contribution to the
- Encourage you to find ways to modify situations that are not
a good fit for you, in order to compensate as much as possible
for the mismatch.
Each of these four clusters offers an important perspective on
leadership. And each has limitations that are typically overlooked
by the authors and advocates. A person who wishes to enhance his
or her leadership would do well to draw lessons from each of these
perspectives, while not relying exclusively on any one of them.
are indebted to Arthur Jago for the basic idea of dividing leadership
theory into four parts, which we have adapted and extended ("Leadership:
Perspectives in Theory and Research." Management Science 1982,