Nichols and Cottrell addressed these and other questions in a recent article in The Leadership Quarterly. They reviewed research examining traits and leadership, specifically studies that focused on determining the traits that people think characterize leaders. Nichols and Cottrell found there is very little research asking people what traits they would like to see in their leaders. They argued, and I think successfully, that describing characteristics of a typical leader and describing your ideal leader are not the same.
They suggested that the better the match between a leader’s traits and the traits that subordinates desire in their leaders, the better for the organization. Commitment to the organization and job satisfaction should be higher. Conversely, a poor match could result in subordinates being uncomfortable with their leaders, “less confident about how the leader will respond in various situations” (p. 713).
In one study using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, they had over 100 people complete a survey, part of which was rating traits of their current leader and traits of their desired leader. The traits rated were derived from decades of leadership studies. The article presented a table of the 15 traits with the average rating for current leaders and ideal leaders. I found this the most compelling part of the study. Using data in one of their tables, I computed the difference in the ratings between the ideal and the desired. Here is what the ratings indicated.
- The greatest gap in the trait ratings between current leaders and desired leaders was "Trustworthiness". This gap was over twice the size of most of the other gaps. In other words, what the people surveyed wanted most -- leaders who were more trustworthy.
- The second largest gap was “Trustingness”, wanting leaders who trust us.
- Third was “Supportiveness”, leaders who help their direct reports, stand behind them, and assist in positive ways.
- Fourth was “Cooperativeness”, leaders who work with you, leaders who understand collaboration.
1. In this study participants desired leaders who were more trustworthy, trusting, supportive, and cooperative. I would like to see national results, perhaps even results across countries. The nationalities of people completing this survey was not reported (if so, I missed it). However, my guess is that results would be similar in many organizations in the U.S.
2. How would you rate your boss on these traits/behaviors? If you are a manager, a supervisor, if you have direct reports, how would they rate you? Do you know? Perhaps you are in an organization with 360-degree feedback. Interesting, these assessments seem to work best where the organizational culture is one of trust, the very factor with which the participants in this study were most concerned.
3. Am I really trustworthy? Do I trust my people? Do I support my people in ways in which they want to be supported? Do I cooperate with others, really listen, and try to build a collaborative culture? Great questions for every leader.
Nichols, A. L., & Cottrell, C. A. (2014). What do people desire in their leaders? The role of leadership level on trait desirability. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 711-729.
"Kona Cliffs" © John Ballard, 2014. All rights reserved. Painting by Jeffrey Bisaillon.