I frequently hear about someone exhibiting good “leadership traits.” Someone who exhibits leadership traits, the argument goes, is more likely to become a successful leader, or at least a leader.
The whole concept of identifying traits and then attempting to identify those traits in other people as a way of meaning, well, anything has a long and venerable history.
In the field of Sport Psychology, a great deal of effort was put into identifying the traits of top athletes and then using those traits to identify potential top athletes from amongst young athletes.
It failed. Miserably. Despite this fact, it’s still popular. In one of my graduate sport psych classes, we were presented with the data on using traits to identify potential top athletes (worse than chance, as I recall). Despite this, about a third of the class insisted that they would still use that method of selecting new athletes for the Olympic Team because, “It just has to work!”
In the field of leadership, a great deal of effort was spent on identifying the traits of top leaders and then using that information to identify potential leaders. It failed as well.
While it seems like a very attractive concept, that if we could just identify the traits of top <X>, then future top <X> would share those traits, it just doesn’t work. Amongst other things that came out of the various studies is that many of these top athletes and leaders did not even exhibit those traits or characteristics when they were young (were they traits that simply hadn’t manifested or learned behaviors? Not clear), and many of those who did never developed into top <X> despite all the attempts to make them so.
A good current example of this flawed reasoning is something someone recently brought to my attention: the concept of Edison Traits. It feels good, but based on the results of similar efforts in other areas, is likely to be meaningless. It appears to be based on the argument that if someone exhibits traits similar to those the history books tell us that Edison exhibited, they’ll grow up to be like Edison or something. It also appears to argue that Edison himself must have had ADHD (I’m not sure why), and that this is beneficial in becoming a brilliant inventor like Edison.
The idea that Thomas Edison had ADHD is, itself, questionable. Intensely inquisitive, challenge seeking, high intelligence does not equal ADHD (so if you think that everyone in your office has ADHD, odds are pretty good you need to take another look…).
At the risk of going off on a tangent, the general concept of trying to argue that ADHD is “Hunter’s Mind” or anything else other than a difficulty in executive functioning is also flawed. That’s not to say that ADHD can’t be used to your advantage: consider Robin Williams.
However, the argument that ADHD is an advantage to a hunter (for example) ignores the reality of survival hunting: long periods of boredom, hours spent practicing skills, etc. To the extent that I’ve read up on this topic, in present day Hunter/Gatherer societies (e.g. in Papua New Guinea), people who cannot regulate attention do not make good hunters.
To some extent, at least some of these beliefs stem from the observation that kids with ADHD do better in martial arts and similar activities. The key is “do better than what?” They do better than they would in more sedentary activities and better than they do in activities with less immediate feedback. Do they do better than kids without ADHD? Once we correct for athleticism, intelligence, etc, the answer is no. Everything that is seen as an advantage for kids with ADHD (e.g. rapid field shifting) is quite easily learnable with sufficient practice by people without ADHD, and those people without ADHD are also much more able to spend the time in routine, boring practice (granted, highly intelligent children and adults often have trouble with routine practice, but that’s not ADHD — that’s normal boredom with routine activities with distant payoffs. The best fix is to make the activity more interesting if at all possible).
Moving back to the question of leadership traits, your odds are better if you train people in effective leadership skills. If you really want to see how someone will be as a leader, put them in scenarios in which they can demonstrate leadership (if you don’t want to risk the farm, predictive scenario serious games are a good tool for leadership identification and development).
In the end, performance, not some mysterious set of traits, is your best method for identifying leaders.