Series on Leadership Part 2 – Defining Characteristics

February 1, 2008

In Part 1, some questions were posed regarding what leadership is, what makes a good leader, and whether or not an individual can actually develop and improve their leadership skills (as opposed to a leader being ‘born’ rather than ‘made’).

In Part 2, I hope to move closer to defining leadership by taking a look at what characteristics and qualities make a good leader. Perhaps by listing and examining some of these qualities (which are often easy to observe), it will be easier to define the concept of leadership. As the Series on Leadership progresses, we will examine some of these traits in greater detail.

So what traits do excellent leaders usually possess? A fairly large amount of academic research work has been done on the subject, and most researchers agree on a few characteristics.

Daniel Goleman, author, researcher and co-chair of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligece in Organizations at Rutgers University, has identified five traits that are commonly noted in research papers on the subject of leadership. They include self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Broadly, I feel that a strong argument can be made that these traits are the basic necessities for good leaders.

This list, however, is very broad in definition and possibly lacks the clarity and detail necessary to truly define what constitutes each of these ideas. For example, what exactly constitutes empathy, and what qualities make someone who is ’empathetic’ different from someone who is not?

The list is also possibly lacking in other traits that may be crucial to the job of ‘leading’. ‘Trbpublising’ commented in yesterday’s post that critical thinking, along with the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, is an extremely important trait. I would tend to agree. Another is the ability to make quick, snap decisions – while it is important to be able to think things through in a logical, thought out sense, many front line leaders (especially in the military) would indicate that taking your time while making decisions is not always an option, so the ability to rapidly make good decisions is extremely important. The ability to motivate and inspire those around you is another trait that frequently makes the list.

It quickly becomes obvious that there is no real consensus on which traits are vital to good leadership and which are not. Now that we have a basic list of traits, over the next few weeks we will take a look at these traits in greater detail. Again, feel free to list traits, concepts, or ideas that you feel may add to our understanding of the topic.

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Series on Leadership Part 1 – What is Leadership?

January 31, 2008

Over the next few months I hope to examine, and hopefully with the help of anyone reading, intend to come to a better understanding of leadership in the modern world.

Why examine leadership? Few issues permeate our daily lives to the extent of the concept of leadership. Everyone is certainly aware of the implications of the next presidential election… few would dispute that the country is in need of better leadership (including myself… I did, however, vote for Bush…twice). Leadership not only plays a part in government and politics, but also our daily lives, whether we work at a manufacturing plant, a school, a hospital, a law firm, or even McDonald’s.

We can all certainly point out bad leaders when we work under them or when we observe them from a distance… but can we use these observations to make ourselves better leaders? More importantly, can we even define what leadership is, or what characteristics make a good or effective leader? Is leading the same as managing? Does the type of leadership that is needed vary from situation to situation?

This is a place to begin to think about what leadership is, what effect it has on our lives, and what we can do to improve ourselves as leaders. Over the next few months I hope to gain a clearer understanding of the idea of ‘leadership’. As the series progresses, please feel free to post your thoughts on the subject.


Have Our Leaders Failed Us?

January 23, 2008

We have all heard the question repeated a thousand times over the past 6 months… Are we in a recession? If not, are we facing one in the near future?

If you have been following the news for the past week, the answer is apparent – not only are we in a recession, we are facing possibly the largest such event in the past 30 years. The question is no longer whether we are in a recession or not, but how we should respond moving forward.

I feel that it is important to understand the root causes that have led up to the extremely serious problems facing the U.S.’s financial markets. Sure, it is easy to blame the previously ignored, terribly underestimated problems caused by the sub-prime lending meltdown over the past five years. Anytime someone borrows more than they can pay back (whether they knew they were doing so or whether they were intentionally mis-lead), you are going to have a potentially serious problem. But we cannot blame the failure of one of the world’s largest economies on bad mortgages alone.

The real problem is 20+ years of ineffective, inefficient leadership from people more concerned with re-election than with setting effective domestic and foreign policy goals to ensure the nation’s future.

It is clear that the world’s financial markets have become extremely integrated and that the market for goods and services is now almost completely flat. To put things into perspective, close to 90% of everything you buy was produced overseas. Free trade agreements have nearly eliminated trade barriers and restrictions on foreign and multi-national corporations selling products within the U.S. At the same time, organizations such as the European Union have set up numerous barriers to restrict or prohibit U.S. companies from gaining market share in their countries in an attempt to protect manufacturers and producers within their home countries. The blame should not be placed on the European Union, however. The blame lies solely on the U.S. politicians who have allowed the EU to set up such restrictions unchecked. The fact of the matter is that our trade deficit is at an all time high (nearly $6 trillion). The value of the U.S. dollar is rapidly falling, which is may be good news for U.S. business – but it is terrible news for the U.S. consumer, who will have to pay increasingly high costs for the foreign goods that we have become increasingly dependent on.

The government has proposed an economic stimulus package to try to prevent further recession. An important question to ask yourself: How will a one time, $400 tax rebate effect you? I’m not sure if our politicians are really that out-of-touch, but this is 2008. $400 won’t change much of anything for the modern American college student, not to mention a 4 person family. As far as stimulating the economy goes, the $400 rebate may work if it is spent SOLELY on U.S. produced goods and services… but let me direct you back to the fact that 90% of everything we purchase is produced overseas. It seems obvious that $360 of the $400 rebate will be sent overseas and have no effect other than to stimulate the economy in OTHER countries.

A country that does not produce anything, be it goods or services, will have a hard time sustaining economic growth. It seems that our politicians have completely missed this fact. While Hillary and Barack are engaging in heated debates about whether or not Mr. Obama inhaled, the country that our founding fathers fought so hard for is failing. As the election nears, I have not yet heard mention of any of the real issues facing the U.S.

How will we deal with the increasing power of the European Union? How will the emergence of China and India as a global economic force effect the domestic economy as we move forward? How will we deal with real domestic issues, such as the failing social security system? Is it fair to ask the next generation of the American workforce to pay into a system that will not exist when they retire?

One fact is clear and indisputable. Our leaders have failed us. The economy is in shambles. While Bill Clinton was passing free trade agreements and receiving ‘favors’ from White House interns, leaders in other countries were calculating how they could improve the situation for their citizens. While Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama (both ACTIVE U.S. senators) are debating how to provide health care for everyone in the country and focusing on getting elected, our economy is falling apart.

It is time to hold are leaders accountable. It is time to be informed and to know what issues are actually important as we move into the new century. Hopefully our next generation of leaders will take notice.


The Ultimate Status Symbol

January 18, 2008

While visiting my aunt and uncle about a year ago, I was shocked to see my uncle, a very well off, successful man that works for one of the biggest corporations in the world walking around the yard in green sweatpants and a purple t-shirt. At first I could not figure out why a very financially successful, middle aged man with two kids would be walking around in the same outfit that the crazy homeless guy outside the university’s entry way wears. Then it came to me: this was a sign that he has ‘made it’.

As times have changed, so have the ways in which men display their financial ‘status’ to those around them. In the middle ages being overweight was a status symbol, as only those who had plenty of resources had the means to become overweight (now being overweight likely means you have to work two jobs to make ends meet leaving you with no time to exercise). In the 50’s and 60’s, having a big house or fast car was a status symbol. As I have matured, however (or failed to as my girlfriend will tell you), I have become fascinated with the most subtle of all status symbols: sweatpants.

You heard me correctly. Sweatpants are the big house or Ferrari of the new millennium. Don’t believe me? I can tell you this much: right now, as a lowly graduate student with nearly no money, there is no way in hell that I can get away with wearing sweatpants. If I wore them around the house, my girlfriend would call me a loser. If I wore them in public, the consequences could be far worse. If I were particularly well off, however, I could certainly get away with wearing sweatpants in my free time. If my girlfriend didn’t like it, I could do what many wealthy men before me have done: sit down in a la-Z-boy, tune her out, and watch football. Once you have ‘made it’, there is really no need to impress anyone anymore, and I really can’t think of any attire more comfortable than sweatpants.

Once I am in a more financially sound position, I will wear sweatpants (the kind with the elastic around the ankle, to be exact) whenever I have the opportunity. I will most likely compliment them with a t-shirt or sweatshirt that has one of those nature murals on the front. You know, the kind that has some sort of airbrush painting of a wolf or moose or something like that. Once I am able to wear one of these outfits with no real consequences, I will know that I have finally ‘made it’.