The journey through the material presented in the course thus far has been an interesting one for me. The number of approaches and theories seeking to explain the phenomenon of what it is to be a leader seems at times to vary greatly, all the while continuing to show instances of overlap in terms of the general ideas presented. One example of that overlap is what seems to me to be, an area where there is a sort of intersection of the skills and trait approach I have recently discovered.
The three main components of the skills model developed by Mumford and colleagues during their work for the US Department of Defense are individual attributes, competencies and leadership outcomes (Northouse, 2016 pg. 47-49). All three are broken down further as to be able to better define them. When I first read the term individual attributes, I immediately thought I had an idea for a blog slamming the entire skill approach for what seemed to me to be a list of items that were obviously traits. I remember asking myself in quite the knee-jerk reactive way “You mean general cognitive ability, personality, motivation (Northouse, 2016 pg. 48) and things of the sort are not traits”?
Traits, speaking from a purely biological perspective, are simply features of an organism. To the prison of thought I have a tendency to commit myself to – the four mental walls that end up creating the structure for my worldview – individual attributes were traits that shaped who people were without them having much of a choice about it. My affinity for a belief that there is little to no free-will in human behavior fits neatly here. Fortunately, further analysis of both the trait and skills approach has led me to think more deeply about traits. I have come to understand that traits are more than just features of an organism, “an individual does not become a leader solely because they possess certain traits” (Northouse, 2016 pg. 20), and that traits can be impacted by factors other than those of a strict biological nature.
Turning to the competencies portion of the skills approach, I found some satisfaction with what seemed to be an attempt at studying skills that people could learn to help them become better leaders. Northouse (2016) summarizes Mumford’s research on competencies as problem-solving skills, social judgement skills and knowledge. Again, these too are broken down further to be able to better analyze them.
Of particular interest to me were social judgement skills, or the ability to understand people and the systems created in which they interact (Northouse, 2016 pg. 49). I felt that social judgement skills like perspective taking, behavior flexibility, social perceptiveness and performance (Northouse, 2016 pg. 49-50) seemed like skills that I could work on. Developing skills like these would leave one without an excuse to cling to about not being a successful leader because one was not born with a high enough capacity for say, general intelligence. One thing that did strike me was that these skills all seem to involve some level of empathetic response to others, and in fact, Northouse (2016) goes so far as to describe perspective taking as empathy applied to problem solving.
Recently, I found this study about empathy that lays out some pretty compelling evidence that how empathetic we are is partly tied to genetics (Hinds, et al. 2018). The authors of the study credit at least one-third of variations in levels of empathy to genetic components and argue that while empathy is “clearly shaped by early experience, parenting, and other social factors, different lines of evidence suggest that empathy is partly biological” (Hinds, et al. 2018). If empathy has a genetic component which implies to some extent it is a trait, does this mean that the competencies portion of the skills approach is flawed? Certainly not, but it does provide an example that shows as we learn more about how it is that people become who they are in terms of personality and characteristics, the more connections that will likely be found between various approaches and theories that seek to explain leadership.
As research expanded over the last century, those that looked to explain leadership slowly moved away from the trait approach as being as reliable as it once was due to its leader-centric focus and lack of taking situations into account (Northouse, 2016 pg. 31). Would it not be ironic that, as researchers start to potentially reveal more scientific evidence like the study on empathy sheds light on, that people turn to give a fresh look at the trait approach. It seems that it may be a decent predictor for success in spotting leadership potential, given that certain people may have an easier time refining particular leadership skills if they possess a predisposition for certain characteristics or traits (Northouse, 2016 pg. 23-24) that tend to aid the rate at which they would be able to develop those particular skills. It may be possible that, much like my own personal journey through the course material has revealed to me, scientific researchers in the field of leadership studies will find more intersections of certain components of the various approaches and theories that seek to define what leadership is.
Hinds, D. A., Bourgeron, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa. Translational Psychiatry, 8(35). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-017-0082-6
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. 7th Edition. Los Angeles: SAGE