A Psychological Analysis of Leader Effectiveness

Lorne Hartman, Ph.D., Founding Principal, Psybase Network Inc.

Contact: Psybase Network Inc. | 905.764.2696

Published in STRATEGY & LEADERSHIP, 1999, Volume 27 (Number 6)

Leadership has been studied in many different ways, depending on the researcher’s methodological preferences and definition of leadership. Distinct lines of research on leadership effectiveness include a focus on the personal attributes of leaders (the so-called trait approach). Another focus is a behavioral approach in which the behavior of effective and ineffective leaders is compared, usually based on the perceptions of others. Some researchers have employed a situational approach which assumes that different behavior patterns (or trait patterns) will be effective in different situations and that the same behavior pattern (or trait pattern) is not optimal in all situations. The present study is an attempt to cut across and integrate these approaches.

Personality traits found to be especially relevant for leadership effectiveness include high energy and stress tolerance, self-confidence, internal locus of control orientation, emotional maturity, personal integrity, socialized power motivation, moderately high achievement orientation, and low need for affiliation (Bass, 1990).

Research on personality traits of effective leaders has been hindered by some methodological and conceptual limitations. For example, relatively few trait studies have included measures of leader behavior. Another limitation of studies in this area is a tendency to examine traits one at a time, rather than consider how the traits are interrelated and how they interact to influence leader behavior.

Most of the statistically significant correlations reported in these studies are relatively low, ranging from .25 to .30 (e.g., Stodgill, 1974). Rarely have correlations between individual difference measures and leadership effectiveness exceeded .40 which would indicate a strong, robust relationship.

Another methodological question is the relationship between subjective and objective measures of leader effectiveness. "Subjective" measures are usually based on ratings obtained from the leader’s superiors, peers, or subordinates. Examples of "objective" measures of performance or goal attainment include profits, profit margin, sales increase, market share, sales relative to targeted sales, return on investment, productivity, cost per unit of output, and so forth. With the advent of meta-analytic procedures and their application to personnel research, there is now empirical support for the belief that use of so-called subjective criteria are legitimate and will predict objective criteria (e.g., Schmitt, Gooding, Noe, and Kirsch, 1984).

The present study addresses some of the methodological and conceptual limitations of earlier research to answer the question: "What sort of person under what set of circumstances is likely to be perceived as an effective leader?"

 

Method

Assessment data were collected on a group of 46 individuals (including 14 women), mostly at the senior management level (Directors and Vice Presidents). A variety of functions are represented in the sample, with an emphasis on sales and marketing (13) and general management/administration (18). These individuals worked primarily at consumer products companies (16) or in financial services (26).

This is a concurrent research design in that measures of the predictor (i.e., personality) and the criterion (leadership effectiveness ratings) were collected within the same time period. Accordingly, we can draw conclusions about the extent of relationship between the predictor and the criterion but cause-effect conclusions can only be inferred, and even then with some degree of caution.

One of the best-constructed personality inventories was used–the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). Developed in the 1940s and 50s by Raymond Cattell, a well-known psychology professor, the 16PF covers the whole range of adult personality functioning. Factors used in the study include:

Warm (Outgoing) Suspicious Extroversion
Abstract Thinking Imaginative Anxiety
Emotionally Stable Shrewd Tough Poise
Dominant Apprehensive Independence
Enthusiastic Experimenting Control
Conscientious Self-Sufficient Adjustment
Bold Socially Precise Leadership
Tender-Minded Tense (Driven) Creativity

The dependent variable for this analysis is a 360° survey of leadership behaviors and strategies called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). Developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, the LPI consists of 30 behavioral statements–six statements for measuring each of 5 leadership practices, each of which consists of two basic strategies:

• Challenging the process (search for opportunities/experiment & take risks)

• Inspiring a shared vision (envision the future/enlist others)

• Enabling others to act (foster collaboration/strengthen others)

• Modeling the way (set the example/plan small wins)

• Encouraging the heart (recognize contributions/celebrate accomplishments)

Each individual completed the Self version of the LPI and asked four or five other people familiar with their behavior (e.g., their boss, one peer and three subordinates) to complete the LPI Other. The LPI survey forms were returned directly to a confidential service bureau for scoring.

 

Results

My hypothesis was that no single personality characteristic would correlate with overall leadership effectiveness (a composite of the five practices as assessed by others) but that certain personality factors would predict or correlate with certain leadership practices. I was wrong.

One personality factor (called Factor A) emerged as a robust and consistent predictor of leadership effectiveness. Factor A was significantly correlated with overall leadership and with each of the five leadership practices. Factor A is usually labeled Warmth and people high on Factor A are described as easygoing, adaptable (in habits), warmhearted, attentive to people, frank, expressive, trustful, cooperative and participating. Evidently, a high-A person would be easy to have as a friend as well as effective as a leader.

People with low scores on A are described as cool, reserved, impersonal, detached, formal, egotistical and cautious–apparently not such a pleasant person to have as a friend and certainly ineffective in a leadership role.

The score on Warmth, doesn’t even enter into a set of weights applied to the 16 primary factor scores to produce a so-called second-order factor that supposedly measures leadership. The Leadership score of the 16PF instead reflects personality traits that are traditionally believed to be important for leadership effectiveness such as being dominant, enthusiastic and self-assured.

In a more detailed analysis of the data, the sample was broken down into 3 groups–high, medium and low leadership effectiveness based on their composite score from others’ ratings on the LPI. Analyses of variance were conducted across groups on each personality factor.

Not surprisingly, given the highly significant correlation discussed above, leadership effectiveness increases with increasing warmth. Beyond this result, however, the relationship between personality and leadership effectiveness is not a straight-line relationship. In fact, in three of the five remaining relationships which showed significance, the relationship between personality and leadership effectiveness is actually U-shaped, a somewhat rare phenomenon in the behavioral sciences.

People who are conscientious, shrewd or controlling will be either very effective as leaders or very ineffective as leaders. The swing variable determining whether the person will be high or low in leadership effectiveness, in each case, is warmth (as revealed by Analyses of Covariance). For example, Conscientiousness (being conforming, rule-bound, etc.) as a personality characteristic may be a very good thing or a very bad thing–it depends on how warm and outgoing you are. Ditto for shrewd and controlling. In each case, the one personality characteristic alone, without a sufficient level of warmth, will be a liability rather than an asset for leader effectiveness.

 

Discussion

Recognition of the importance of leadership in effecting successful strategic change in organizations has grown considerably in recent years. Whereas there is still some question on whether leadership can be developed through planned intervention (i.e., training), particularly in the short-term, the results of the current study provide rare evidence that interpersonal warmth might be the key attribute to focus on in development efforts to enhance leadership effectiveness.

These data suggest that warmth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for leadership. Leaders need to demonstrate a group of skills, competencies and characteristics that allow them to have influence in the work domain. For a manager or executive, this subsumes both the formal and informal influence they are perceived to have in the organization, as well as their perceived competence and skills.

In addition to competence, trust is an important requirement for leader effectiveness. Warmth may be the critical variable in building trust. Employees need to believe that the leader cares about them as people, not just a resource to contribute to profit, to help the leader earn a large bonus or be awarded more stock options. If an employee believes that a leader cares about the employee’s interests, the leader will be seen as having benevolence for the employee. Leaders also need integrity, to be perceived to adhere to a set of principles that employees find acceptable, and to act in ways that are consistent with the espoused values. Both integrity and benevolence are elements in the definition of warmth as measured by the personality instrument used in this study.

 

Summary

Recognition of the importance of leadership in organizations has grown considerably in recent years. Research in this area however has been characterized by narrowly focused studies with little integration of findings from the different approaches. This study is an attempt to embrace a broader view by examining the relationship between leader traits and leadership behavior to determine leadership effectiveness across different situations.

Attempting to develop leadership abilities is neither quick nor easy. The results of the current study provide rare evidence that leadership might be effectively nurtured through intensive, intra-personal coaching interventions.

A key take-away from this analysis is that in order to be effective as a leader you need to be warm, outgoing, kind, and trustworthy. How much of what passes for leadership development today focuses on the above attributes in its curriculum?

 

REFERENCES

Bass, B.M. (1990). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press.

Schmitt, N., Gooding, R.Z., Noe, R.A., and Kirsch, M. (1984). Meta-analyses of validity studies published between 1964 and 1982 and the investigation of study characteristics. Personnel Psychology, 37, 407-422.

Stodgill, R.M. (1974) Handbook of leadership: A survey of the literature. New York: Free Press.