Great leadership skills aren’t one-size-fits-all

Step right up.
Step right up.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Imagine your new boss arrives, and his first words to the assembled employees are: “Great to be here. I don’t know much about what this organisation actually does because I’ve never worked in this industry. But I’m sure we’ll be fine and I just know I’m the best leader for you all.”

Skeptical? Well this is not imaginary. It happens in workplaces every day. As well as individuals often being parachuted into senior positions at organisations who have never previously been involved in the sector, politicians similarly rotate from office to office.

The fact that British prime minister David Cameron mostly chose to re-appoint ministers to departments they were working in before the election is actually unusual. Between 2005 and 2009 the average length of service for a minister in the British government was just over a year.

Then there’s the phenomenon of leaders switching between business and politics. In the UK there is a high level of disdain for so-called career politicians who lack “real world” experience. In the US, where they are gearing up for elections, we see another attempt to transfer supposedly generic leadership skills from one context to another. Carly Fiorina is the latest high-profile candidate to make the move from business to politics. Formerly CEO of Hewlett-Packard, she brings large amounts of funding and a claim to strong leadership, but no track record in political office, leaving questions about whether she is qualified to lead policy discussions.

Is leadership a generic quality?

Classical leadership theory suggests that this kind of situation shouldn’t worry anyone. Leadership studies have always been concerned with identifying generic traits, behaviours, and now even brain patterns that enable leaders to exercise their skills anywhere.

The longest established approach is the attempt to identify the traits, often genetically determined, that enable us to identity who is and who isn’t a leader. These researchers have been arguing for more than a century that all leaders need to be great are some specific characteristics.

Initially, trait researchers were convinced that certain physical characteristics qualified people to be leaders—physical features, skills, and aspects of personality were all identified as essential. As well as often excluding women, this way of thinking about leadership resulted in enormously long lists of contradictory traits that no-one could possibly embody or practise. Aspirant leaders were encouraged to be aggressive and sensitive, dominant and co-operative, extroverted and tactful all at once.

This long search for the essence of leadership continues, in slightly different form. Researchers today haven’t given up on identifying the crucial traits, but some more innovative scholars have discovered neuro-scientific research methods. Business school-based researchers are working with colleagues in medical schools to gather data on how people’s brains respond to leadership challenges. The intention of this work is to identify how “true leaders” think, the neural pathways that are used when confronted with a situation in which leadership is happening.

Objections to this approach are many and profound—taken to its logical conclusion this would have employers using brain scans to select for entry to executive-track development programmes.

But the most important issue is that it’s still an attempt to find a universal way of identifying those of us who are mysteriously more suited to becoming leaders—and those who are not—so that they can be categorized as “non-leaders” or followers. After all, the one thing leadership studies researchers can agree about is that a leader needs followers.

Does context matter?

The corporate CEOs who have a habit of seeking political power in the US implicitly refer us to this kind of leadership theory. They insinuate that the practice of leadership transfers unproblematically from context to context, organisation to organisation. This may well be true in some ways—large corporations are highly politicised environments and working in government can resemble target-led corporate life. Politically aspiring CEOs can also play the populist card of having done a “proper job in the real world,” unlike many career politicians.

But leadership is highly contextual. Its practice depends on the organization, its purpose, the people working there, the surrounding local and national cultures, historical conditions—the list is long. This way of thinking about leadership can also mean that we understand leaders as creating context.

In other words, the act of leading is affected by where and when it happens, but it also contributes towards our understanding of what the context is. Corporate leaders such as Fiorina exemplify this, if they achieve political power—the values, practices and attitudes prevalent in large corporations become part of the context of politics, in turn affecting how leaders there behave.

The revolving door between politics and business

Movement between high level politics and corporate boards goes in both directions, however. The British political and civil service classes often pass through a “revolving door” from Whitehall to the Big Four accounting firms and back again. This exchange between business and politics also happens in the US. Politicians and champions of the corporate world often share educational background, class position and financial status.

So if we really want outsiders or people who think and behave differently in positions of political leadership, we have to look beyond corporate leaders—and we should also be concerned about the channels that take political leaders smoothly into corporate boardrooms. Business and politics will never be separate, but the assumption that leadership is the same in both serves neither activity or context.