Suggestive Leadership: A Civic View

Nearly every study about the subject of leadership, from HBR articles to the GLOBE project, deals with components such as culture, nature, nurture, management style, education and recently EQ and SQ.

The role of luck, personal choices, decisions and their combined effect are, in my opinion, hugely understudied and underestimated. This may be attributed to the values and belief systems of the scholars and writers addressing the subject of leadership.

What I question is the sample used to quantify and categorize leadership traits and the resulting theories. If the person labeled as "Leader" was subjected to different conditions that earned him a place under the spot light, if that person never got the opportunity to shine, would the spot light still find him?

There seem to be a kind of preparatory leadership or a social behavioral reaction that points towards what I would like to call: "Suggestive Leadership."

Allow me to elaborate...

Most business professionals have been subjected to a situation where a new manager is joining the team or meeting a person for the first time. A third party, be it the HR manager in the first case or a friend in the second case, introduces or prepares us to meet that person. Usually, it goes something like "He comes from XYZ company where he achieved remarkable success and...", or "The new manager has turned-around the company where he worked to be on the fortune 500 list..", "You will never meet someone as nice as this person..." -- the list goes on and on. What happens to most of us mere mortals when hearing an introduction as such is similar to a self-induced hypnotic state that causes us to take in what we hear as the truth and nothing but the truth! We already construct a frame of reference about this person, and sometimes we amplify what we hear in order to draw a desirable personality attributes model to make peace with a generated mental picture of a leader that will guide us to victory!

This is not over-simplifying or undermining the research on Leadership. I am concerned by the fact that we came to cultivate that notion where we have to label and categorize human and social behavior so we can possess a tool to communicate and deal with the person in question. This brings to mind a quote from Nassim Taleb's book Fooled by Randomness in the prologue where he says: "This book is about luck disguised and perceived as ... skills and ... randomness disguised... as determinism."

It should be noted that thus far there is no consensus on what leadership is nor on what are the traits that a leader must possess. The GLOBE project has its theoretical base grounded in the notion of implicit theory of leadership. Furthermore, GLOBE consensus was only on definitions of two core concepts: leadership and societal culture.

Leadership was defined as "the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute towards the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members." House et al., 1999 defined societal culture as "the commonality among members of collectives with respect to the psychological attributes ... and the commonality of observed and reported practices of entities such as families, schools, work organizations, economic and legal systems, and political institutions."

Common cross-cultural leadership traits add layers of complexity when generating a work-frame due to lack of consensus on leadership traits on a global cultural-neutral level and the elimination of the role of unforeseen or unexplained variables such as luck or destiny. Regardless of the researchers' own belief systems, the effect of these variables is too great to ignore. Why? Indulge me a bit more.

Studies tend to tailor work-frames on who we call leaders. There's no 'checklist' that we can use to determine if the person in question is or is not a leader. Simply by looking at a short list of who we call leaders, the difference in personalities and how they do business is staggeringly visible: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, President Bush (Senior and Junior), President Clinton and President Obama. The list goes on. But by just looking at this short list one can directly notice the wide spectrum of personal qualities and attributes that these persons cover. So, why each of the names mentioned is called a leader? I theorize it is because of those earlier mentioned variables (luck and destiny), and our own individual perception of what we expect leaders to do that we are not able to (again luck and destiny), that they are called leaders!

There seems to be a sort of 'twist' of 'trigger' in each of the "'leaders'" lives that propelled and made them visible to us. This logically cannot be attributed to determination, perseverance and hard work. It would be naïve to think that only this small percentage of people of the planet have what it takes to succeed. It is safe to assume that millions (if not more) of capable people around the globe have the determination, perseverance and are working hard to succeed. So, what is missing? Is it that 'trigger'? Is it luck or destiny that results in that person being in the right place at the right time where conditions are favorable of a perfect storm?

Alternate Reality

Let us, for a moment, consider these few scenarios:

• Suppose Jack Welch never reached the top position of GE. Would his famous quotes resonate and inspire millions around the world and be found in best-selling books? I am wondering about the "trigger" that enabled him to pour out what was inside and allowed him to gather the courage to change and lead.

• Bill Gates has personality traits that, some argue, are by any measure as far as possible from leadership attributes. Suppose Microsoft never signed that deal with IBM to have DOS on every IBM PC, would people be reading Bill Gates' books and would he be lecturing on business and leadership in universities and world forums?

• Warren Buffet, one of the best business gurus in the investment world (if not the best). His calm personality and brilliant intellect do not fit conventional leadership traits.

The list is long. What I am suggesting is that we the people are the main ingredient in the leadership cocktail. It is us who draw a picture of what we want the person we are willing to listen to, to have as traits, and we bestow on the title of Leader. I guess our fascination with the hero or leader figure stemming from our childhood pushes us to accept second prize: If I did not enjoy the same triggers that placed that person in a favorable position, then I will accept and follow the person who did and maybe lightning will hit the same spot twice!

I believe every person has the ability to lead. Everyone has something to offer. What makes this person rise and 'be known' is the formation of a perfect storm of favorable circumstances, a window of opportunity, the right time and place, and let's not forget: luck.

If we examine what images we associate with leaders, we will discover that one way or another, these images are well-rooted in conflicts and crises.

Nearly every subject material that approached the leadership topic came to the conclusion that different leaders have different qualities. Leadership qualities are the unintended consequence of the person's abilities and skills surfacing in the face of a favorable situation that presented itself as the opportunity that person was waiting and hoping for.

Another important point to stress on is that almost all research done on the subject of leadership has a North American bias (Misumi, 1985, 1992; Smith et al., 1989). Results are based on studies of companies that are largely North American. According to these results, many European, Asian and Middle Eastern leaders would not merit the title.

I believe our obsession with success, role models and labeling have diverted us from the inexplicable and the unpredictability of life, and lead us to refuse to believe success is not in reach for all. Thus, we look up to leaders and try to imitate or adopt their ways in a hope to reach a similar outcome. This is why when a discussion about leaders takes place, almost all the time there is a disagreement on the term and the person holding it. It can be attributed to the fact that one can relate to one leader more than another. Still the highlight is: consensus is unattainable. Our state of mind dictates how we relate to leaders.

My views are the result of my experience in management and the unique position of getting to know different cultures. I am of Lebanese origin, lived in Montreal Canada and currently residing in Dubai. My cross-cultural business interactions in Dubai, gave me a new angle from which I look now at the topic of leadership.

This is my view...