I’ve been pondering over different leadership traits recently. Is it better to be a powerful and aggressive leader, or a quiet and strategic leader? These two sets of leadership qualities are not necessary converse, and I’m not even sure if one CAN be better than the other by any objective standard. Those in the field of researching management and leadership related topics have always sought to measure correlations between specific leadership traits, and good business outcomes.What have these studies shown?

The Sampling Mistake

The studies have been largely inconclusive. Even those that have highlighted specific behavioural traits as being condusive to successful business outcomes, still cannot escape the ‘survivorship’ flaw of such studies. This is basically a causality flaw in the design of the methodology, and is extremely difficult to avoid. Simply put – researchers are forced to conclude that where a correlation is seen – the leadership quality must have caused the successful outcomes. And therein lies the problem. Even if you can show that the more of a certain traits, the higher a certain outcome, this does not necessarily prove direct causality between the two. That is to say, if you see that leadership trait A is positive correlated with outcome B, you cannot expect to cause outcome B by actively introducing trait A.

The Pets Know Best

Take a look at this family example from sociology. Imagine if a study from a survey of households revealed that families that had pets such as cats and dogs, reported higher levels of happiness than families that did not have pets. Many would read this article, and think ‘Brilliant! If I want to be happier, I’ll go out and buy a pet! They must cause happiness!’. This is a fallacy. One cannot draw that conclusion, because we can observe this relationship, but we do not know of other factors that might be at play here.

To take the example further – perhaps the reality of the world was that only families on good incomes could raise pets, and therefore all the families that reported high happiness, were also on higher-than-average incomes. Or another alternative is that people who are loving and kind tend to experience more happiness, and this type of person also likes the idea of having a pet more than the average family.

As you can see – this type of logic plagues those looking into leadership traits and qualities, and trying to draw sensible conclusions which managers could take out into the industry. You’re on your own I’m afraid! Well, except you have us to!



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