New Leadership Trait Research From 1700 Interviews
- We need a fairer way to assess leaders to maximize interview structure and minimize biases.
- This requires developing a distilled framework of traits that are commonly understood and observable.
- Presented here is a twelve-item trait model as a leadership framework solution.
- This trait model forms the basis for a new interview methodology designed to reliably observe these leadership traits.
In 2012 having read much of the academic literature on leadership and having spent my career interviewing leaders all over the world, I set out on an eight-year journey to understand if there were success factors common to all effective leaders that can be reliably used as a basic framework for leadership assessment. I interviewed over 1700 leaders from Fortune 500 companies, startups, and stay-ups. This research was the basis for my book, The CEO’s Greatest Asset – The Art and Science of Landing Leaders, and what follows is a summarized version of my findings relating to leadership success factors and traits.
I started out with a simple question: “What is it about a great leader that makes them great?” My conclusion, after many years of research, is that it boils down to two things: Making decisions and managing relationships. The more senior a leader becomes, the more important their decisions become. For CEOs of global companies, that is the entirety of their job – to solve problems, evaluate choices, and make decisions. Their ability to solve problems and make decisions is entirely reliant on how they manage relationships with employees, customers, shareholders, and any other group that helps their business exist.
There are a complex set of factors that influence their effectiveness: what personality they were born with, what factors shaped their early years, how much hardship they endured and how they grew from it, how emotionally grounded they are, who they admired and studied, and modeled themselves upon, and very far down the list is what work experience they’ve had. Every leader is unique in this complex web of factors, so we need a way to distill all of this into more manageable observable traits. This research concluded in the distillation of four success factors and twelve traits outlined in Figure 1 below. From the board meeting to the town hall speech, to vendor selection, to the regulatory meetings, these traits manifest themselves in all leadership activities.
In 1995, Costa & Macrae developed facets of the Big Five to better describe the breadth of what can be interpreted by these traits. “The facets were selected to meet a series of criteria: They should represent maximally distinct aspects of the domain, be roughly equivalent in breadth, and be conceptually rooted in the existing psychological literature.” (Costa & McCrae, 1995).
Figure 1: Factor Analysis From Cattel’s 16PF to The Big Five
Thinking – The Decisions
The best leaders I’ve studied always demonstrate an intense curiosity about things. They have a thirst for learning and understanding everything in order to be as objective as possible when making decisions. They don’t always have the ideas; perhaps they only generate ideas from their team that may be more creative. However the ideas are generated, the leader will most certainly be the guardian of the ideas and how they are evaluated and executed. They know what’s happening in their company, but also what is happening outside the company; the competition, the macroeconomic and sociopolitical landscape, and much more. They have a unique ability to maintain a 30,000 ft view and delegate while also being able to zoom into detail at a street level when required and know what questions to ask.
Imagination is not just about wild, colorful abstractions. It’s the pondering of ideas and potential outcomes that, in turn, leads to strategies being formulated and then executed. If it helps to break this down into idea creation, strategic thinking, and problem-solving, these all begin life in an imagined or hypothetical state before being acted upon. A vision, for example, is a hypothetical future state born from the wisdom and ideas of the person or people that imagined it. A strategy starts as an imagined path mapped out in our minds to reach a desirable future destination. Leaders don’t have to be the source of imaginative ideas, but they most certainly need to be able to hypothesize about different scenarios to then decide upon what destination is most desirable and potentially attainable.
Intuition is often misunderstood and is, in fact, the collection of learned experiences and wisdom which is processed in a particular part of the brain that then leads to intuitive thinking. Intuition, when harnessed correctly, is real and positive and is a key differentiator between good and great leaders. We cannot account for why some people have certain gifts in life, from sport to the arts to academia; some are just born to be better than others. I don’t believe intuition is an exception here. Senior leaders of large corporations often work without all of the data they need to make informed choices. There isn’t someone instructing them what to do next, as in the case of a manager. Sometimes they just have to make decisions using what is ultimately their intuition.
Discipline – The Standards
Where does an individual’s motivation come from? What keeps them motivated? Why are they doing what they do? How do they motivate and inspire others? The answers to these questions will most certainly be intriguing, and people can’t always articulate what motivates them. It is less important that they can pinpoint exactly what motivates them. What is important is that they can communicate stories that express how their levels of motivation have impacted their life. It doesn’t have to be stories about work either. For example, you can’t complete a marathon without being someone who knows how to get motivated. Leaving a country in pursuit of your education or work goals is not a pursuit of an unmotivated individual. These stories and patterns of progression in one’s life tell you a story about motivation.
Operating with integrity which can also be described as adhering to strong ethical standards and values, is a key part of discipline. Yes, we have to execute with integrity, and yes, we have to communicate with integrity, but it is grounded in our foundational ethics that require discipline to grow and maintain. Observing the standards someone keeps in different aspects of their life is a potentially greater predictor of success than many of the interview questions we ask today. Discipline manifests itself in the standards we keep, and these standards tell a story about our levels of integrity. We may never know the whole story, but there are plenty of clues about how principled people are and to what degree they value integrity.
Discipline is like intelligence in that people who are disciplined in one domain tend to be disciplined across many domains. It is the consistency of disciplined people that tells us they are disciplined. Consistency is also about the patterns of performance and delivery that are apparent during the course of one’s career. It’s fair to say that the consistency of success, especially over long periods of time, will de-risk the chances of that person failing in a future role. That is not to say they will not fail, but rather the evidence tells us that the emerged patterns lean towards successful outcomes, or not as the case may be.
Execution – The Output
The research shows us that people who are willing to take risks make better leaders, to a certain degree. That is not to say, the more of a risk-taker you are, the more likely you are to be an exceptional leader. Entrepreneurs are the poster people for courage from a work perspective. To give up a paying job to try to do something on your own is a risk too far for most. However, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to display courage. Having the courage to run a big company is in itself courageous, but how does the candidate manage risk and demonstrate courageousness?
Being adaptable may appear to contrast with determination. However, not being adaptable and sticking to a strategy that turned out to be wrong, yet pressing ahead regardless because you are determined, is not the way forward. Admitting the path you’re taking the company down is not working, and being able to pivot into a new direction is something that anyone in a senior enough position will inevitably be faced with on more than one occasion in their career.
A team needs to feel safe in executing its objectives, knowing that everyone is accountable, especially the leader. When the team knows that the leader is taking accountability and encourages them to take calculated risks and work with high degrees of autonomy, they feel empowered, safe in the knowledge that their leader has their back. Furthermore, holding oneself accountable before seeking people in the team to blame is a far more productive way to run and motivate any team.
Communication – The Delivery
Being considerate is thinking about how to get the best out of people, how to share bad news, how to be more inclusive, showing empathy, humility, and generally how to listen better to others and make it known that they have been heard. Being considerate also involves self-reflecting on how you handle situations and how you can improve. Your ability to build trusting relationships, to be credible, and to grow professionally all require you to be considerate in your approach to situations, what you say, and how you act. Communicating doesn’t begin with the words you say. It begins with your thoughts and how you regulate and process them.
Both in terms of communicating ideas and speaking in general, being articulate is a powerful trait to have. It can build trust and rapport quickly, it can be used to simplify complex ideas to communicate with people, and there is an assumed level of intelligence with someone who is highly articulate. That shouldn’t be confused with people who just use lots of big words yet speak with little substance. We’ve all no doubt met with these types, or perhaps you’re still working with one today.
Leaders have a team or teams of people that look up to them. A leader’s job is to inspire these people. To inspire them to give their all in working there. To inspire them to get behind the purpose of the company and its vision. Inspirational communication is not about eccentric passionate speeches. It is about connecting with people at all levels in the company and making it known that each and every person has an important job to do. This is not just done through town hall meetings and newsletters, but through actions and following through on commitments made and delivering an employee experience that inspires people to join and then stay for the right reasons.
What concluded in the Bremnus leadership success model started out with the hypothesis that behavioral competency interviews were not fit for purpose and that we needed a new model of evaluation. In order to be more consistent and fair in assessing leaders, we need a basic framework to utilize, one that can help us to be more objective in our assessment of leaders and their actions. The framework outlined here is only the beginning. The next step is developing a meaningful interview process with questions that help the interviewers objectively assess these common leadership traits, which cannot be achieved with existing competency behavioral interview questions.
About The Author
Fraser Hill is the founder of the leadership consulting and assessment company, Bremnus, as well as the founder and creator of Extraview.io, an HR software company aimed at experienced hire interview and selection in corporates and executive search firms. His 20+ year career has brought him to London, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Canada, and now the US, where he lives and works. His new book is The CEO’s Greatest Asset – The Art and Science of Landing Leaders.
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