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Better business begins with better leaders

As I See It

We have just inaugurated a new president and watched a morally flawed but very popular president leave office. Jesse Jackson has joined the ranks of the loud — but flawed — religious leaders who seem to proclaim better than they practice. Al Gore so wanted to lead the nation, and almost succeeded in winning the presidency.

What do we look for in a president? In a boss? In a spiritual leader? What characteristics set some people apart for leadership responsibilities while others are clearly designed for followship? Does the situation make the leader or does the leader make the situation?

The whole subject of leadership provides a long list of questions for pondering.

Management literature has long been obsessed with figuring out what makes a leader click. The basic question is whether opportunity creates the leader or whether leaders create the opportunity. Likely, that question will remain for scholars to debate for as long as scholars debate things.

This subject of defining leaders is somewhat clouded by the fact that the same person can be a leader in some endeavors and a follower in others. The importance of being a good follower cannot be overemphasized. Without good followers, a leader may be placed in the position of ordering an attack and have no troops respond, a diabolical predicament if ever there was one.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the subject of what makes a leader, there is some sound research that identifies traits common to most leaders. In a 1991 article for the Academy of Management Executives, Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke listed six traits on which leaders differ from non-leaders.

1. Drive

2. Desire to lead

3. Honesty and integrity

4. Self-confidence

5. Cognitive ability

6. Knowledge of the business

Though all six of these traits are not found in every leader, they provide a good reference for assessing leader potential. Noticeably absent is popularity. Though most normal people want to be liked, leaders are primarily concerned with getting the job done effectively.

A somewhat older study conducted by Martin Chemers in 1984 attempted to determine whether the best leaders concentrate on accomplishing the task at hand or on nurturing relationships with subordinates. The study concluded that neither style is superior to the other. The most effective style depends on the nature of the job to be done.

The Chemers study did conclude some general principles of effectiveness for task-oriented leadership style (autocratic) versus a relationship-oriented style (participative).

– Other things being equal, autocratic decisions are less time-consuming and, therefore, more efficient. Listening to people takes time whereas barking out orders is quick.

– If the leader lacks sufficient information to make a decision, he must consult with subordinates to get the necessary information. This situation bridges the gap between autocratic and participative.

– If the leader does not have support of his subordinates, he must gain acceptance and commitment from his subordinates through allowing them to participate in the decision-making process.

Since both of these studies pre-date the information age and the consequent reduction in middle management positions, they are perhaps due for an update.

Today’s employees must be much more self-reliant and able to function with less direct supervision than in the past. Consequently, there is a definite trend toward participative management and away for the autocratic style.

In my view, the trend toward more participative management is a good thing. People are created to be self-reliant and make a much more meaningful contribution when they are allowed to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process.

Identifying and nurturing prospective leaders is one of the chief responsibilities of senior management. Observing people in a work setting allows a manager to identify those possessing the necessary traits for leading. Though the aforementioned six traits are general and not absolute, they offer a pretty good guide for assessing leadership potential. To function effectively in the “new economy,” leaders should be encouraged to adopt a more participative management style.

After all, if we don’t groom our successors, we’ll never be able to retire.

Thought for the Moment

You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.

— Ken Kesey

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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