OBSERVE OTHER LEADERS
Experience and example are the two basic ways to develop your moral character.
- Suggestion #1 of this blog series is to accept difficult challenges that give you good experiences.
- Suggestion #2 is to find a personal mentor to guide you in your experiences, a mentor who also will provide a good example for you.
- This post (Suggestion #3) suggests that you seek out and observe other leaders, ones who provide examples to emulate—or avoid.
You can benefit by observing other leaders in action, their behaviors and also the character qualities they manifest. My research finds that identifying the most admired leaders in an organization and their apparent character qualities might be a key to understanding and finding excellent managers in the contemporary workplace (Whetstone, 2006). Although many management and leadership scholars have tended to write off a trait approach, recently it has regained some favor. Indeed, if it is carefully adapted for changing cultures and situations, a trait approach–one considered wise by many cultures over the ages (Anderson, 1993)—can complement other methods applied for character development.
For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer serves as an exemplar for investment banker Buzz McCoy. Although he discounts any over-dependence on hero adulation, McCoy still confesses, “[Bonhoeffer] modeled all these traits (of a successful leader), leading me eventually to teach in my church, serve in a residence in a seminary, and become a lay member of a Benedictine monastery” (McCoy, 2007, 15). He also identifies Harry Cunningham, the CEO who built K-Mart, as one who “exemplified the great leaders we can only hope to become” (McCoy, 2007, 98). The admiration he expresses for these men causes one to wonder whether McCoy would have been able to write the thoughtful classic “The Parable of the Sadhu,” or to become an effective ethics teacher, without the influences on his character development provided by Bonhoeffer, Cunningham, and others.
Senator John McCain recommends observing the exploits of exemplary leaders. The following excerpts from his speech to U.S. Naval Aviators at Tailhook 2011 (McCain 2011) apply universally to aspiring leaders.
“My grandfather, who commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific during WWII, lived large and was always larger than life to me. … He made it a point to talk with pilots after they returned from a strike, asking them, ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ Here was a 3-star admiral, taking time during the course of war to receive honest feedback from men under his command. My grandfather knew that if you ever stopped learning, especially from your men, then you also stopped leading….
“So as we celebrate the centennial of Naval Aviation and begin to contemplate the next 100 years, I encourage all of you to look back on those who led us through our first century. I urge you to study their lives and their leadership styles. Then strive to be like them. Learn to inspire the men and women who work for you. Learn to lift them up, to give them meaningful responsibility, to allow them room to grow, and yes, even to make mistakes. Be slow to judge, and remember that many of our most gifted leaders would never have survived in a ‘one strike’ or ‘zero defect’ environment. If instead, your style is to be quick to criticize, slow to praise, and you are unwilling to forgive, I urge you to seek a different profession. And if you have not yet learned the power of redemption, I encourage you to read the biographies of Nimitz, Halsey, Boyington, Henderson, McClusky, and Waldron–just to name a few.”
Trait theories of leadership postulate that, by observing, a person can identify those superior qualities of the leader that differentiate him from his followers. Until the 1940s, most leadership research concentrated on individual traits, but pure trait theory thereafter fell into disfavor, in part because personal traits are often poorly defined and overlapping and these approaches do not specify the appropriate intensity for applying individual traits. The personal qualities are also posed as universally applicable rather than situational, and trait approaches typically do not explain how traits can be interrelated in the makeup of an individual’s character. Stogdill’s influential critique concludes that both the person and the situation must to be considered, not simply a universal set of traits (Bass, 1990).
However, the tendency of scholars to write off the trait approach goes too far when they view it as exclusively a matter of universal characteristics (of every “Great Man”) rather than as inputs to a process that is culturally influenced and subject to individual subjective assessment. In a study of the personalities of 316 CEOs and the performances of their companies, Kaplan, et al. (2008) found that characteristics related to executive skills of execution and organization were generally undervalued and characteristics related to interpersonal skills such as listening and team building were overvalued. Research also has identified personal characteristics such as drive, desire to lead, motivation, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, intelligence, knowledge, and flexibility as important for leadership success (Schermerhorn, 2004, 167). For current-day confirmation, just look on Twitter for tweets about leadership.
Research within an American corporation (Whetstone, 2003) found that experienced managers can readily identify individuals as either positive or negative role models, their most-admired or least-admired exemplars. When questioned, these managers had little difficulty describing specific cases and behaviors in which their role models—often an early supervisor–demonstrated character qualities that the responding managers valued as worthy of emulation (e.g., honesty or courage) or of suppression (e.g., dishonesty or cowardice).
We naturally tend to observe others and attribute their behaviors to dispositions of their character virtues or vices. However, you need to be careful. Character attributions can be risky—even very wrong. Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1986) posits that people, including bosses, tend to attribute poor performance or failure to character vices in others, while they attribute successful performance to their own positive qualities—rather than to contributions of others or favorable circumstances. While observing others, you must discipline yourself to be as objective as reasonably possible, avoiding quick judgments. Don’t over generalize, but recognize that different people may not agree as to the best choice for a leadership model, and that a person may well choose different leaders depending on the situation. Nevertheless, you can gain by observing others. Concentrate upon how you can better understand those qualities that you might adopt, while avoiding criticizing the character of others.
Therefore, whereas the universal trait (Great Man) approach is problematic, and any trait approach is at best insufficient alone, an individualized and contextualized observational approach still can benefit you (see Deal and Kennedy, 1982). Indeed, closely observing, analyzing, and emulating the moral and behavioral qualities of admirable leaders can be used to complement other methods for character development–if appropriately adapted for changing cultures and situations.
My next blog will suggest that you also read great books and biographies of successful leaders. Leaders should read, but many busy leaders complain that they don’t have time to read. In this case, disciplined observation can be especially important. It really should not replace reading, but it may be even more important. Close observation and interactive experiences in workplace relationships involve processes of trial, error, correction, and possible improvement that add an experience-based dynamic that reading the great books or biographies inherently lacks.
Anderson, D. (1993). “Lost and found.” National Review. (November 15), 58-60.
Bass, B. (1990). Bass and Stodgill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 3rd ed. NY: Free Press.
Deal, T. & A. Kennedy. (1982). Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.
Kaplan, S., M. Klebanov, & M. Sorensen. (2008). “Which CEO characteristics and abilities matter?” Swedish Institute for Financial Research Conference on the Economics of the Private Equity Market: AFA 2008 New Orleans Meeting Paper. Accessed at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=972446
McCoy, B. (2003). Living into Leadership: A Journey in Ethics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
McCain, J. (2011). “Leaders versus managers—John McCain’s Speech at Tailhook 2011.” Accessed October 6, 2011 at http://idreamtalent.com/2011/09/26/leaders-vs-managers-john-mccains-speech-at-tailhook-2011
Schermerhorn, J. (2004). Core Concepts of Management. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Weiner, B. (1986). An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion. NY: Springer-Verlag.
Whetstone, J. T. (2003). “The language of managerial excellence: Virtues as understood and applied.” Journal of Business Ethics. 44(3), 343-357.
Whetstone, J. T. (2006). The Manager as a Moral Person: Exploring Paths to Excellence. Charlotte, NC: Catawba
This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.