The Potential to Lead - Part 2 of 3

Redefining Leadership

Transformational leadership, authentic leadership, servant leadership, situational leadership, transactional leadership ... The models abound, each offering something distinctive, and most citing research to support their effectiveness.

That diverse ways of leading are effective should not surprise us. After all, human behavior is multiply caused, and there should be many ways to accomplish leadership goals. In personal experience, haven’t we all witnessed acts of leadership from people who are quite different in temperament, personality, and style? Perhaps, then, our goal should be to help a diverse group of potential leaders find their voice, their unique way to contribute leadership. 

But returning to the several approaches to leadership mentioned, we find that they do share something. It's a primary focus on leaders influencing followers. Leadership is closely aligned with formal authority in a governance hierarchy. Whether interaction be dyadic or one-to-many, the assumption is that leadership communications stem from authority. In that respect, it has a top-down feel. Variations in relational quality may exit, but there is a power structure.

You might think that by pointing these things out I am now going to launch into an idealistic rant about the evils of hierarchy and power. Well, I am not. But I will find fault with a singular reliance on leadership thus conceived. We'll address those concerns in Part 3. 

Redefining Leadership How?

The simple fact is that the world is changing (see our whitepaper for more). Most of us today work in organizations that are or aspire to be flatter, faster-moving, and global. Moreover, their success is typically dependent upon a well-educated, professional workforce with different wants, needs, and expectations. And what slows or impairs our efforts to thrive in this changing world is our tendency to cling to habits of mind, action, and interaction that reflect an outdated prototype.

This prototype is gendered. It is stereotypically masculine and hierarchical in style. But what we are finding in the most recent research is that the organizations who excel in adapting to the imperatives of the new reality (flatter, faster, more diverse, etc.) are those who have begun incorporating more of the stereotypically feminine qualities of leadership. These include attention to others, inclinations to think and act more collaboratively, and less of a reliance on heroic individualism than on well-tuned patterns of interdependence.

Don’t get me wrong with all this mention of the masculine and the feminine. You don’t need to be a woman to adopt and use these behaviors, nor do you need to be a man to over-indulge hierarchy and top-down communications. But since historical (and still prevailing) biases in leadership theory and practice have privileged white males, there is a gendered quality to our legacy stereotypes of what a good leader looks like.  

In order to get beyond these old ways we'll need to increasingly examine leadership as a relational and organizational phenomenon. We'll have to focus on encouraging emergent leadership at all levels, not only on positional leadership. But that will not eliminate the need to understand the individual "antecedents" or predictors of potential for leadership in the person. Indeed, we will be most interested in how certain relational and organizational variables serve to catalyze these personal expressions of leadership. So, let's examine some of what we know predicts the potential to lead.

Individual Predictors of Potential

Recent research has drawn upon studies that identify so-called “psychological antecedents” of leadership. Moreover, they've used high-powered statistical techniques called structural equation modeling to link these predictors of leadership to an underlying construct, i.e., potential to lead. The predictors of leadership that were used are: 1) anxiety (low levels); 2) self-efficacy (high levels); 3) optimism (high levels); 4) locus of control (internal); and 5) openness to experience (high levels).

  • Those low in anxiety are known to function better in situations involving change, challenge, and stress. Self-efficacy is the individual’s belief that he or she can perform successfully not only in one task, but generally in a variety of tasks. It correlates highly with evaluations of leadership. And both of these variables align quite closely with the notion of self-confidence, which is so frequently cited as the most manifest indicator of the capacity to lead.
  • Optimism has been found to be a stable personality characteristic, which reflects both a more positive self-image as well as a tendency to see the positive potential in challenging situations. Optimism is associated with working harder and greater persistence in striving to achieve goals. It has also been positively correlated with leadership. It relates to characteristics often attributed to leaders, i.e., a future orientation, the capacity to envisage a future state and then to strive resolutely to realize it.
  • Locus of control concerns how we perceive our ability to control events. An external locus of control indicates a belief that events outside our control dictate outcomes. An internal locus of control reflects a belief that we can actively influence outcomes. Like optimism, this tends to be a rather stable personality characteristic. An internal locus of control is associated with self-confidence, and those with this orientation tend to assert more initiative, adopt more innovative and daring strategies.
  • Finally, openness to experience (one the big five factors of personality) reflects a person’s curiosity and desire to learn and explore. However, it's not merely a curiosity of ideas. It includes an openness to others, their ideas and experience, qualities that suggest inclusiveness. Those who have it prefer experiential learning and exhibit greater skill in solving problems of interpersonal relations. All of this has been central to many if not most theories of leadership.

Here’s the punch line: When measurements of these five predictors of leadership are combined to form a "latent" or underlying variable called potential to lead, the research suggest a fundamental causal mechanism in the development of these capacities to lead. It is something called attachment style, in particular a secure attachment style. It develops early in life, but if one’s early life did not help promote this secure style of attachment, be assured it is amenable to development. Yes, this underlying factor that seems so predictive of our potential to lead can be assessed and developed!

Next: How to Cultivate This Potential

Before we unveil our approach to assessing and developing the potential to lead in January, there remains more to share. In Part 3 we'll offer some highlights on how, by going beyond the limitations of traditional leadership theory, you can unleash the potential for leadership in your organization.

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