Attributes of Effective Leaders

Many theorists have proposed attributes that characterize effective leaders. They imply that in order to translate a vision into sustained reality through actively involved followers, certain traits are helpful, if not mandatory. Gardner (1990) lists fourteen characteristics of leaders, including ability to motivate, confidence, assertiveness, flexibility, and physical stamina, but goes on to say that the required attributes depend on the leader's style, the demands of the situation, and the nature of the followers. Birrer (2002) says that leadership is qualified by such characteristics as equanimity, courage, focus, energy, and kindness.

Blake and McCanse (1997) define six key elements of leadership: conflict solving, initiative, inquiry, advocacy, decision making, and critique. All six, they say, must be present for effective leadership to occur.

These examples form part of a spectrum ranging from a broad list of characteristics that may be helpful depending on the situation to a narrow group of absolute musts for leadership. Pity the aspiring superleader who tries to master all of them! In reality, there are more so-called characteristics of good leaders than there will ever be time to perfect them.

WHAT DO LEADERS DO? Let us shift our attention once again from what a leader is to what a leader does. Shultz (2003) says that leaders assess social dynamics and take corrective action immediately where problems exist. Merely sweeping issues "under the rug" with the hope that they will disappear is an ineffective practice, but many managers would rather avoid problems than create discomfort by addressing them head on. Fortunately, managers can correct many problems through motivation and persuasion to adopt a compelling vision and follow a strong example. Staff members need to see opportunities for what could be, and how they can be an integral part of achieving that change. Kouzes and Posner (1995) outline five practices of leadership: leaders challenge the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others to act, model the way, and encourage the heart. These practices are neither characteristics nor skill sets; rather, they are manifestations of possibly infinite combinations of abilities and traits. However, examples of these practices are excellent examples of leadership in action.

THREE LEADERSHIP ACTIONS. Three common threads run through various interpretations of what makes an effective leader: leaders create, they share a vision, and they set an example. These threads align with the results that a leader should hope to achieve—that is, his or her vision carried out by followers because they embrace the vision themselves and are enabled to follow the example set by the leader. The three denominators also encompass some characteristics of leaders but not so much so that the characteristics can be distinctly categorized. This makes sense, because leaders who do what they need to do to be good leaders may possess a variety of character traits.

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