Are they born leader or or shaped by the environment?
Great question. To clarify first, this was not my PhD research. It was done by a colleague at a consultancy I worked for, so I've read it but I didn't write it.
There are two parts to the question here. First are leaders born or made? The answer is a bit of both. All the research shows that leadership is a composite of four different factors:
- Experience: Have you had the chance to experience or practise the level of leadership you are aspiring to either formally or informally. Note that here we are talking about the development of skills and capabilities needed at that level of leadership and this changes as you progress up through the leadership ranks. Typically, what works at one level, will most likely cause failure at the next. A great example is micro-managing at the first level, i.e. where you're supervising people doing the work. This is something you need to do to get the job done, but if you try to micro-manage at the next level up, you'll fail because you just won't have the bandwidth to do it. You need to switch from micro-management, to delegation and trust.
- Motivation: Do you want to be a leader, not everyone does, as was hinted at earlier and even those that make it to one level or another don't want to go all the way. There is a huge difference for example between being the CEO versus executive management or being leader of the party versus a junior/cabinet minister.
- Cognitive ability, also known as mental horsepower. There is a strong correlation between leaders their intellectual ability and the more senior you get, the more that becomes a factor. But bear in mind that it's more of a 'good enough' factor rather than an exponential one, i.e. the smarter you are doesn't mean the better a leader you are. You only need to meet a certain threshold.
- Personality factors; do you have the right make up to be a successful leader. As with cognitive ability, this is more of a 'good enough' scale but there are some interesting quirks, which brings us to the whole derrailing leadership question.
So these are you proto-typical rising starts, the ones that look set for the fast track: aggressive, confident, focused, determined, you know the type. Almost always the ones with the loudest voices and the sharpest suits (yes The Apprentice candidates are classic examples!)
But for some reason, about a third or half way into their career, they seem to drop off the radar, never quite making it above the mid level of leadership. You see them in large corporates floating around, making lives harder for people below them.
The research was done around five characteristics of personality and how closely associated (correlated) they were with this kind of failed leader and found a very significant relationship between these five characteristics and the failure. They were ego-centred, intimidating, manipulating, micro-managing and passive/aggressive.
All of these underlying personality traits were shown to cause significant derailment of executives and other middle managers.