Traits are undeniably important to understanding leadership, specifically what makes for good leadership practice. The research on traits is extensive, and while it helps us understand the leader in the leadership equation, it neglects to account for the followers and the situation which are critical to understanding effective leadership (PSU WC, 2020). A leader in one situation with one set of followers may be extremely effective, but when that same leader is placed in another situation with another set of followers, they may struggle. However, when understanding how the leader’s traits can translate in the new environment the leader can be successful. Even more powerful, if that leader takes the opportunity to learn from others in that environment and vice versa, it makes the team even more successful. This concept is something I experienced, and it transformed the way I approach leadership and the way my peer understands a new world he was not accustomed to previously as a leader.
My work experience has been restricted to the private sector in a for-profit environment. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to be paired up with peer who had 20+ years of experience in the military. We both had experience leading others, managing projects, and providing mentorship. We found quickly that we saw things similarly and could easily bring our teams together, but after a bit of time we also found that we would have difficult discussions regarding disagreements as to how we might approach a given situation. Particularly, this was the case when dealing with gaining employee involvement in a changing situation and reviewing policies.
While Joe had more years of experience than I did as a leader, his experience came from an environment he was no longer in. His past life called for respect for authority and direct decision making; managerial skills were essential (Yeakey, 2002). Joe’s leadership traits in the military were necessary in life or death situations and while he also exemplified leadership traits such as dependability, teamwork, and knowledge, he often struggled with the need to gain employee input. His communication style was, as Yeakey describes, “between the leader and subordinates rather than among all members of the group” (2002, p. 73). This difference in communication approaches would spark disagreement between the two of us, especially when it came time to review and change policies or practice. While I stressed the need to gain acceptance for changes and setting roll out communication plans, Joe thought this was unnecessary. While I believed in detail and illustrative explanations, he wanted things to be short and didn’t understand why I wanted to include language regarding why the change was necessary and examples of what this could mean to people.
Early on in our working relationship he had to deliver news of an important change to employees. He chose to include only the essential information and did not include specific language about the why and how the change would impact them as individuals. Following the announcements, employees asked some tough questions which he struggled to answer, leaving everyone frustrated. He came to me afterwards because he realized why I was stressing adaptive communication and together we developed a more thorough message to be distributed to employees. This turned the situation around and while not everyone agreed with the change, we were able to communicate why it was important to the success of the organization.
This case illustrates one of the pitfalls of the trait approach to leadership. Stodgill (1948) explains traits necessary in effective leadership look different in different situations. What works in the corporate sector for one leader doesn’t work the same in the military. As much as gathering employee input is important to setting strategy in a corporate environment (Rajesekar, 2013), it is equally important in the military for leaders to act decisively and often important to keep strategy close to the leader until it is time to execute (Yeakey, 2002).
What Joe and I found by working together was not the differences, however. We found there were lessons to be learned for both of us. Where I was previously too inclusive of opinions, oftentimes pivoting based on one or two opinions, I learned that there are decisions that need to be made by a leader that can be difficult but necessary. I learned from Joe how to take a stronger stance for the greater good when it was necessary, and he learned from me that adaptive and democratic leadership is necessary in other situations.
In the end, we found we have more similarities than differences given the situation. By leaning on our shared traits of drive, willingness, and honor, we were able to teach one another something which made us stronger leaders for our followers and more adaptable to future situations.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2020). PSYCH 485 Lesson 2: Trait Approach. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2040131/modules/items/28001669
Rajasekar, J. (2013). A comparative analysis of mission statement content and readability. Journal of Management Policy and Practice, 14 (6), 131-147. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1503084621?accountid=13158
Stogdill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A review of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35-71.
Yeakey, G. W. (2002). Situational Leadership. Military Review, 82(1), 72. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=05b35c37-5f84-45b7-ac36-aa77180779ce%40pdc-v-sessmgr04