Development Future of Learning

Why Leadership Isn’t About the Leader

Written by Brett Simpson

Last week, we launched our new First-Time Manager Microlearning Program. As we worked to develop this curriculum, I wondered: Do I have what it takes to be a great leader? Who does? How do you know?

A quick Google search would tell you that leadership comes down to your personality traits. Top results like the Air Force’s Leadership Traits List list would have you believe that you have to be charismatic, dominant, and assertive to lead successfully.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because these descriptors echo over 100 years of leadership theories. In the mid-1800s, the philosopher Thomas Carlyle popularized the Trait Leadership Theory, arguing that some people have inborn traits that predispose them for leadership. And in 1913, the sociologist Max Weber argued that the best leaders have charisma and unquestionable authority.

But, what if these traits don’t sound like you? Does that mean you’re not destined for greatness? That you’ll never lead or even worse, you’ll never lead effectively? Not necessarily. It turns out, all of these trait-based models are looking at the problem wrong.

Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about your followers.

New psychological research shows that effective leadership isn’t about the personality of the leader at all. Instead, it comes down to a relationship they build with their followers. Great leaders demonstrate an ability to understand the needs of their people—what they value, how they see the world—and guide them toward a common vision.

This is great news for people who want to lead, but don’t necessarily fit the conventional leader archetype described above. However, there’s another reason why we need to dispel the trait-based view of what makes successful leaders. These outdated models aren’t just incorrect; they contribute to our unconscious biases, too.

What are outdated leadership theories costing your organization?

Workplace discrimination costs U.S. businesses $64 billion in turnover alone—and evaluating leadership potential based on personality can contribute to that costly problem.

For instance, psychological research shows that people tend to automatically associate men and women with different traits, regardless of their behavior. For example, people tend to associate men with the same traits they think of when it comes to leadership—like dominant, ambitious, self-reliant.

On the other hand, most people associate women with traits like affectionate, sympathetic, and sensitive—which, according to the theories above, aren’t qualities of great leaders. That means when people focus on specific personality traits to determine leadership potential, they’re psychologically primed to believe men will be better for the job. These stereotypes are pervasive in popular culture and the workplace: women are told that they’re not outspoken enough to lead; that they simply don’t have the right traits.

This kind of associative bias with leadership traits affects minorities, too. Research shows that people are more likely to associate traits like “dominance” with whiteness than any other racial identity. So settling on a few characteristics isn’t just unhelpful for defining effective leadership—it can be inherently exclusive.

No company can afford to sleep on this problem. If we want more diverse and inclusive workplaces, we need to refresh our approach. That means changing how we think about leadership—and training people accordingly.

Anyone can lead. Here’s how.

The truth is that anyone can be an effective leader—the secret is focusing on forming a connection with your people. How do you do that? Start with these quick tips from the leadership track of our First-Time Manager Program to start gaining the trust of your followers:

  • Tell your people what success looks like. Be transparent about your expectations. When you communicate clear steps that employees can take to prove themselves, they’ll trust that you’re rooting for their success.
  • Get to know them off site. Take it from our contributor Bryan Lattimore, CEO of Campfire: “Spend time with people, and get to know them beyond your company. Who is the person you’re trying to effect change with? Get to know them, and go from there.”
  • Work alongside them. Great leaders lead from among their people, not above them. There’s a lot of power in being physically present. Don’t lock yourself up in your office—walk around, ask questions, and listen to any concerns.

Armed with these tips, anyone can form and foster the trusting and productive relationships that are the foundation of effective leadership.

Bring the new school of leadership to your people.

We all share a responsibility to equip our learners with the tools and information they need to overcome the obstacles of the modern workplace. If you’d like to introduce these ideas to the next generation of leaders at your organization, we’re here to help—our First-Time Manager Microlearning Program includes an entire track specifically devoted to this new science of leadership.

To learn more and see some sample lessons, follow this handy link.