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In search of a leadership

Complementary and situational leader traits

Introduction

“Some people are born leaders. Some people shine in crisis mode. Other people run and hide in the corner.” (Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

In this paper we are going to discuss leader traits. First we intend to give an overview of the theoretical background of the topic. In this theoretical part we are going to explain in which way we would like to have understood leadership and we are searching for characteristics and skills which a leader should have to be successful. In our paper it will have to be discussed as well if a leader needs different skills in different situations and contexts. In a next step we will examine different situations and contexts and their influence on the skills of a leader. That means that we would like to introduce a deeper insight in crisis leadership, complementary leadership and leader couple in order to examine situation driven leadership.

As one of the purposes of this paper should be to find out if a prototype of a leader exist at all, we must not take a definition of leadership which is not broad enough to comprise all kind of different traits which such a prototype of leader might need to describe. For example Kotter describes leadership in the following way:

„Leadership set direction, often a new direction, for a firm, clarifies the vision, gets people to the share the vision and line up in the right directions, and motivates them to want to make the vision despite sacrifices and difficulties.“ (Kotter, 2000:1)

This way of describing leadership points out the leadership as a mean or tool in times of change and gives the image of a charismatic leadership rather than that of a prototype of leadership in this definition. Such a narrow definition would be needed if we try to define a special group of leaders e.g. charismatic leaders. But as the purpose should be to find general skills of a good leader we need a broader consideration of leadership.

Thus, we rely in this paper on a more widely definition of leadership which allows us to define and consider leader traits from different points of view. A very helpful definition would be the one Lord et al are mentioning in their essay. They are claiming that:

“Recent theory suggesting that leadership is an emerging social process produced by the interaction of a variety of factors, including context, tasks, group histories, and the personal qualities of leaders and followers.” (Lord et al, 2001:2)

This broad definition of leadership allows us to define far reaching leader skills which are adjustable and promise success in a lot of different situations.

Kotter suggest the following four main traits of a good leader: (2001:1)

  • Drive and energy level

  • Intelligence

  • Mental and emotional health

  • Integrity

  • We agree with other authors like e.g. Yukl who doesn't consider it necessary to mention intelligence as a leader trait. Of course, we can't deny that logical intelligence is important for a leader. But we claim that intelligence is needed for all kind of “better” works and is not really just a typical leader skill. In general it is easy to criticise that Kotter doesn't go into details in his article and explain different kinds of leader traits more explicitly. The four leader traits he mentions seems more to be criteria for being successful in general and not just related with leader traits. You will probably be successful if you have a lot of power and when you are energy driven but that does not mean that you automatically are a leader. Of course, we agree that most leaders have these kinds of characteristics which Kotter mentions, but we believe that there must be more convincing criteria and specific skills a leader should have. In other words it can be said that Kotter's leader traits are not giving us an explanation of what distinguish a good leader from a bad leader.

    What must a prototype leader be able to do? What kind of skills must a leader have? To find a more detailed description of leaders skills we focused on the book „Leadership - Magic, Myth, or Method?“ by McLean and Weitzel. These two authors are defining the following 6 leader skills (1991:131 f):

    Skill 1: Situational discretion

    Situational discretion deals with decision making and the improvement of a leader's efficiency by knowing what kind of decisions can be delegated.

    Skill 2: Communications

    Communication is not really a surprising point as communication is one of the most important parts of making business today. Finding the right words has also effects on winning the trust and enthusiasm from your followers and making them feel comfortable in working for the company.

    Skill 3: Motivation

    The idea of motivation is quite simple, multiply the followers effectiveness by motivating them.

    Skill 4: Assessment of risk and related fears

    Assessment of Risk and Related Fears points out that one should consider the relationship between risks and fears. However, McLean and Weitzel are also of the opinion that problems in a company arise not only because wrong decisions are made, but also from waiting to long making decisions. Risks have to be taken, and if a decision has been made but later turns out to be wrong, then you have to make the best out of the situation.

    Skill 5: Unexpected problem solving

    How does a leader act in a unexpected situation? Should a good leader have the skill to find the right solution for an unexpected problem? With unexpected problem solving McLean and Weitzel are of the opinion that with complete and objective consideration of the problem it should be possible to find a solution for all problems. However, they admit that the leader needs to have a lot of self-discipline to consider the problems in an objective way.

    Skill 6: Relationship renewal

    With relationship renewal the authors want to point out that it is necessary for a leader to be sensitive of conflicts between their followers.

    It would be interesting to know which abilities the two authors consider to be possible to learn and adopt. However, it seems to be nearly impossible for a single person to be able to have all these different kinds of skills to form a perfect style. We also question if these skills are working the same way under special circumstances. Does a leader always need the same skills of leadership despite different kinds of situations. Is a good leader, a good leader in every situation and a bad leader bad in everyone?

    We share Lord et al's opinion which they write in their article:

    „It has become increasingly evident that no single prototype or style of leadership applies to all situations. In fact, we argue that definitions of leadership depend upon innumerable situational and contextual factors related both to the leader being perceived and to the broader external environment.“ (Lord et al, 2001:1)

    As we are convinced that leadership styles are situational driven we would like to pick up in the next chapter leadership in a special and stressful situation. Therefore we are going to consider leadership and the skills a leader has to have in a crisis. As a following step to that we are going to describe leader couples and the complementary leadership style. We believe that team leading and the complementary leadership style is a good way to avoid situations in which a single leader realise that he has not the skills needed in the situation the company is in.

    Crisis leadership

    Leadership in a time of crisis is something very particular, for several reasons. According to three articles, leader traits have something particular during a stressful period, or maybe the skills appearing during this time can define leadership.

    Gene Klann writes that there are many articles about management during a crisis, but crisis leadership is not the same at all. In fact, leadership traits in this particular period have to be oriented towards human and social relationships.

    But managing a crisis and providing leadership during a crisis are not necessarily the same thing. As we've seen during the terrible tragedies in New York and in Washington, leadership has a great deal to do with the human side of a crisis.” (Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

    Now it's interesting to focus on which social traits have to be involved. Klann have found three ways to stay leader in time of crisis. And his ideas are completed by Useem and Wheat in an article in Fortune.

    At the beginning of a crisis you have to communicate, because during a crisis, people seem to be lost or don't know what will happen. In fact people have to remain calm, and only through good communication from the leader will this happen.

    Receiving information becomes essential, even if it is not particularly positive. In fact, in the absence of real information, rumors will develop which are usually more dangerous than the truth.” (ibid)

    And this communication has to occur at all times during the crisis, to let the people remain stable in an unstable period.

    Another important point is to show consistency, because the people need to have a role model to follow, someone to imitate in a time of crisis. In fact if you spread the feeling that you have the situation in your hand, people will imitate you and thus not panic. People have to trust the leader's behaviour.

    “…people physically look to their leader during a crisis. That makes your personal conduct critical.” (ibid)

    “If you appear hurried and harried, or if you are visibly shaken and distraught, you may actually amplify the impact of the crisis situation in the eyes of those you lead.” (Klann)

    “Leaders who can't master their own fears can thus infect an entire group” (ibid)

    “More than ever, the role of the leader is to absorb uncertainty” (Citrin in Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

    “The most important thing is to have people know that they're secure and care about” (Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

    “Leaders can also act as a mirror, reflecting a group's anger, grief, resolve, or joy on a much larger stage than is available to most” (ibid)

    The third point we can talk about now is to be visible. In fact, this skill lead to a team effect, because people seem to be all together to go far away from the crisis.

    Finally, you must be present, visible and involved - not stuck away in an office or in continuous meetings. Being visible and available goes a long way toward settling people down and sending the message that we are all in this together and things will be fine.” (Klann)

    “What did everyone say about Giuliani? He was everywhere, with the fire-fighters, on television, running for his life when the second tower collapsed.” (Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

    These three principles are essential, according to Klann, “…in reducing employee anxiety, limiting rumors and insuring continued productivity.”

    To conclude we can say that the main traits to focus on in a time of crisis is the human behaviour, e.g. to manage the people in a way to reduce the uncertainty as much as possible. An article in SmartLeadership mag-Ezine (April 1998) states that a crisis period can be avoid by improving your leadership behaviour, and in this period you know if you are really a leader, or if it's just the events before who have made you famous, or maybe you're just good in managing figures and account, but not people.

    Leadership development is perhaps the greatest key to curbing the current crisis of leadership. Due to poor leadership development, some people are in a position lead, but they lack the skills to do it effectively.” (SmartLeadership)

    Developing leadership is something difficult for a leader, maybe because in many cases it's impossible to change. This is because the human traits you need to have seem to be the fruit of education, experience, and day to day behaviour. The following thought comes up: Is a person born as a leader?

    We think that it is partly true, even if in some cases the leader try to change into another character, but the capability to lead people in a time of crisis requires such skills which can be those who already have this capability. In fact, in our eyes, in a time of crisis, it's the ideal situation to see the difference between a manager and a leader. Inexperienced leaders can discover “themselves” in a crisis period while some people find out that they are not the leader they thought they were.

    “Some people are born leaders. Some people shine in crisis mode. Other people run and hide in the corner.” (Useem and Wheat, 2001:126)

    Leadership couple

    It stands to reason that no one person can possess all the necessary traits for a perfect leader. Even if you would find one, they most probably do not posses the most evolved skills in each area. One suggested solution is to combine a number of persons that together have the required traits to lead the entity in a better way. Gronn (1999) discusses the leadership couple in the context of a successful school in Australia, Timbertop. In Gronn's terms a leadership couple consists of a superior and a subordinate.

    The head master, J R Darling, intended to establish his school Corio as a role model for other schools in the country when he was interrupted by the Second World War. He held great visions of changing the way education was given and he also had the resources to execute his ideas. With his background in the upper middle class and as a sociable character he could freely move around the inner circles in the country building an awareness of his work. (Gronn, 1999)

    After the war was over he wasn't able to pick up where he had left of, with daily work pilling up in front of him and the school overcrowded while at the same time the finances of the school failing. In response to this situation that was to his disliking, he moved offensively starting a new site of the Corio school, Timbertop. The person he chose to head the new site, Montgomery, was one he had worked extensively with over the years and felt trust towards. Gronn points out that the most gain of the leadership couple is from the fact that Montgomery was a completely different type of person. His most prominent traits were that he had a humble nature, reassuring presence and an organizing style of leadership. (Gronn, 1999)

    Together they formed Timbertop into a school were pupil democracy actually worked and the pupils quickly integrated themselves in the new environment far from the outside world. The insightful visions of Darling and the trustable and dominating manner of Montgomery made it possible to make the school into something very different. In fact he left most work for Montgomery to do and seldom visited the site. In the face of increasing bullying, which is against the very core of school's spirit, Darling made sure not to intervene although keeping an eye on the development of the situation. Instead he let Montgomery handle the problem knowing that Montgomery was more suited to handle it than himself. Another time a group of pupils got lost in the area, not returning for days. This time authorities needed to be contacted to assist in the situation. In this case Darling hesitated to give the permission for a search although Montgomery seemingly sought it. (Gronn, 1999)

    Gronn came up with four core attributes for a leadership couple to work well. Firstly, the importance of rehearsal, to know how to perform and the extent of the subordinates authorities. Secondly, the leader-follower reciprocity, the unspoken code and shared values between the couple that guides them. It could also be in the form of extrinsic awards. Thirdly, the need for space. It is necessary to know the allowed discretionary latitude. Increasing significance of the area gives increased space according to Gronn. Lastly, the dispositions of the two in the couple. They need to be different but they still need to connect. (Gronn, 1999)

    One of the first things we thought of was: Why two? If two people could have more of the favored traits, then three would most probably have even more. There are several reasons why you can't just assemble a group and accumulate their traits. First we have the need to utilize several traits in a situation. While being understanding, one perhaps has to consider the democratic aspects of the situation. But more importantly it is the focus of Gronn's article. The pre-situational and situational transaction costs. Before two people can work together as a working leadership couple they need to establish the rehearsals and the space of every leader. In the above mentioned case the couple had worked together for at least a decade and still they made mistakes in understanding the limits and extent of their respective authority. In every situation there is the need to get the opinion of the expert in the field to lead the subordinates. In the case of technical competence this is acceptable or even to be commended but in the case of leadership it makes it fragmented and slow. To worsen the situation it could lower the trust for the leaders when they aren't capable of handling the anything themselves.

    The described case also shows a division of traits not commonly mentioned as the normal division. The meta-leadership as Nicholls (1987) describes it is actually divided in the couple. Darling had the visionary ideas and the ability to connect with outside people, while Montgomery was the role model and had the ability to translate the visions into the reality of the school. Macro-leadership on the other hand was entirely in Montgomery's hands when it comes to Timbertop. It was made very clear by various situations and the fact that Darling hardly every came to Timbertop. Because of the distance of the site it was necessary to delegate most things.

    Complementary leadership

    One way of looking at complementary leadership is to look at male-female partnerships. In order to do that one must try to answer if there actually is male and female leadership.

    Until recently the general perception of business management was a male dominated structure that contained a leadership style that was hierarchical, action-oriented and sometimes quasi-militaristic. To be an ideal leader of this organisation you should be a John Wayne clone, independent, tough and individualistic. (Nelton, 1991)

    As a contrast to that perception a new generation of women are bringing a new style into business that is described as more consensus-building, more open and inclusive, more likely to encourage participation and more caring than that of many males. Nelton (1991) states that the fortunate businesses today are those in which these differing styles become complementary rather than confrontational. Men and women are learning the strengths of each others approach in an organisation that is recognised as encouraging complementary leadership. In these organisations many women are incorporating the known strengths, such as focus on performance, into their leadership styles, while the men are adopting a more “soft” approach. The soft approach are what is usually described as a female leader attribute.

    Nelton also states that the timing may be just right for complementary leadership. Recent studies show, with an increasing number of people agreeing to it, that women are well suited to be leaders. Leadership styles that are based on openness and interaction with people are especially suited to a contemporary work force. That is today's better educated work force. (Nelton, 1991)

    The following traits are what is traditionally thought of as male and female traits of not only leaders but also of the male and female mind in general. We believe that it is important to present these traits to make it easy to see the differences however stereotypic they are.

    Female leader traits:

    • Ability to empower employees

    • Ability to motivate, encourage and persuade

    • Interactive leadership, to enhance other peoples sense of self-worth

    • Long term view

    Male leader traits:

    • Decisiveness

    • Toughness

    • Competitiveness

    • Short term view

    Since it is, even today, a male leadership that is predominant what is it that speaks for, so to say, a complementary leadership? First of all, since complementary leadership is made up of two parts, which flaws can female leadership solve?

    Female leadership traits can help companies solve three major difficulties:

    • Service orientation, a need for better customer service.

    • Quality demands, higher quality on products and services

    • Leadership, the need for leadership in itself

    All of the above require the relationship building skills at which women often excel. (Nelton, 1991)

    Nelton (1991) brings, on several occasions, up the fact that an organisation that wants to succeed incorporating complementary leadership its leaders must be comfortable in their own leadership style. The male and female traits are neither always gender based, nor never gender based. In the article there are several examples of very successful businesses that are run by male-female partners. They say that part of the success is based upon the fact that the complement each other in their leadership styles. They are allowed to do what they are good at. This doesn't mean that two very clear stereotypes working together are a solution but that leaders should also learn from one another. Nelton (1991) has some suggestions of what improvements leaders can make to be even better:

    “If you are a woman consider being more decisive.” (Nelton,1991:7) Its not the same as being bullheaded but women often lack a sense of timing about when to stop building consensus and making decisions.

    “[If you are a man] consider being a better listener. ” (ibid) Women are in general much better on this.

    “…if you are a woman add an ability to focus on short term goals. ” (ibid, 1991:8) Male managers are good at building enthusiasm in short term crisis.

    “Be willing to express emotions…” (ibid) This is not management for and by wimps but an emotional manager earns respect. Revealing humanity inspires excellence.

    “Don't let your ego get in the way.” (ibid) There is no room for ego in leadership. No one person makes a company successful.

    “Be yourself.” (ibid) Don't try to force yourself into a certain style that is not natural to you, instead be a complementary leader by letting someone else complement you.

    What are we thinking about the idea of complementary leadership? First of all do we agree on that it is not only gender related if you have a feminine or masculine leadership style. Culture and experience is as much the reason for what kind of leadership you excel at. We strongly believe that it is important to make use of the different leader skills people posses and by that complement each other. As the article stated people are more and more demanding to be part of the decision making process in companies and organisations and that requires a different type of leaders to handle the new situation. In Scandinavia the soft values are already incorporated in many organisations but women have despite this so far had a hard time moving up in the organisations. A possible way to break “the glass ceiling” is to focus on the fact that it is good for business to have leaders that compliment one another. To be able to do this, today's leaders have to be open and think in new ways to see the which qualities that is needed in their organisations to be as strong as possible. We're dealing with complimentary leadership both feminine and masculine leaders will have to take into consideration to find leaders that fit into their organisations. To be able to do this they will have to analyse the type of leaders they are employing today and see which kind is needed in the coming years.

    Conclusion

    Does a sterotype of a leader exist? Well, we find a lot of theories and authors writing about special leader traits but it seems that there are a lot of ideas of what kind of skills a good leader should have. We see the reasons for these widespread definitions of leadership from the fact that the authors try to explain leader traits from different points of view. As a first conclusion it can be said that we are convinced that the skills a leader need depend of a lot of factors and in particular from the situation he/she is in. In our paper we took the situation of a crisis as we think that this is one of the most stressful situations for a leader and shows, or if you want, prove what skills a leader has or has not. As a leader you can certainly learn some of them but others are inherent to your own behaviour. In different kinds of situations different leadership skills are needed. From this we come to the conclusion that the complementary style is a good way to make the best decisions. In combining the strength of someone in one area and the strength of the other in another area you can compensate the weaknesses of both and come to the best achievable situation. We are of the opinion that such a complementary style works better i.e. when two completely different kinds of persons (different characteristics, experiences, education) work together in a team e.g. masculine and feminine leadership styles combined.

    We see the leadership style of men-women as one leadership style of the future and that it is likely to replace the more common styles of today. There is a big potential in the complementary style which will be more flexible in all kinds of situations.

    References

    Gronn P.: Substituting for Leadership: The neglected Role of the leadership couple, Leadership Quartely, Spring 99, Vol. 10 Issue, p 41

    Klann G.: Leadership for Extreme Times, http://www.ccl.org/connected/enews/articles/0901crisis.htm, 2002-03-02

    Kotter J.: Leadership Engine, Executive Excellence, April 2000, Vol. 17 Issue 4, p 7

    Lord R.; Brown D.; Harvey J.; Hall R.: Contextual constraints on prototype generation and their multilevel consequences for leadership perceptions, Leadership Quarterly, Fall 2001, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p 311

    McLean J.; Weitzel W.: Leadership - Magic, Myth, or Method?, American Management Association, New York, 1991

    Nelton, S: Men, Women & Leadership, Nation's Business, May 1991, Vol. 79 Issue 5

    Nicholls J.: Leadership in Organisations: Meta, Macro and Micro, European Management Journal Vol.6 No 1

    SmartLeadership.com: http://www.smartleadership.com/articles/crisis.htm, 2002-03-01

    Useem J.;Wheat A.: What it takes, Fortune, 11/12/2001, vol.144 Issue9, p126

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