Most approaches to explaining leadership effectiveness focus on either leader traits (e.g. personality, intelligence, gender) or leader behaviors (e.g. directive, participative, charismatic, servant leadership). Both approaches have been shown to have merit, but how do traits and behaviors work together, and is one approach better than the other?
A new meta-analysis looked at evidence from 79 previously published studies to attempt to answer this question. The article is about 45 pages long, and I provide the full citation at the end of this post in case you are having trouble sleeping some evening. I think the four most interesting findings from the research are as follows:
1. Although having certain traits may predispose individuals to certain behaviors, behaviors are the more important predictor of leadership effectiveness. (p. 40)
2. Individuals who are high in Conscientiousness and Extraversion are more likely to be evaluated as effective leaders, and individuals high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness tend to improve the performance of the groups they lead. (pp. 40-41). Overall, Conscientiousness was the most consistent predictor of leadership effectiveness (p. 37).
3. Within the behavioral approach, transformational leadership was the most consistent predictor across a variety of effectiveness criteria (p. 37). Effective leaders must plan and schedule work, support and help their followers, and encourage and facilitate change (p. 41).
4. The largely negative relationship found between passive leadership behavior and effectiveness suggests that even engaging in suboptimal leadership behaviors is better than inaction. Thus, leadership development initiatives should encourage individuals to proactively assume their leadership responsibilities rather than passively waiting to act until problems develop (p. 41).
Because the evidence shows that behaviors are the strongest predictors of leader effectiveness, we can and should train folks to be more effective leaders. Hire the most conscientious people you can find, but when you get ready to promote people into positions of leadership, make sure they have a proven record of mastering tasks, relating well with others, and responding to mandates for change.