Due to the complexity of leadership, associated research tends to be limited in its breadth and clarity of core leader attributes. In particular, different studies tend to focus on varying, narrow categories of individual differences.19 In an attempt to organize the existing literature on the effects of individual differences on leadership, recent frameworks have distinguished between trait-like and state-like differences. While research on trait-like differences would be dispositional and thus an extension of the Great Man Theory, research on state-like differences shifts its focus to buildable skills.
In order to assess the conceptually varied research on individual differences and leadership effectiveness, a group of psychology and management researchers set out to compare the roles of trait-like (i.e. personality and intelligence) and state-like differences (i.e. knowledge and skills) in leaders.19 They conducted a meta-analysis of 1,846 articles across 25 individual differences proposed to be related to effective leadership.
Out of the 25 individual differences they assessed, 13 were found to be essential for effective leadership: seven trait-like individual differences (achievement motivation, charisma, creativity, dominance, energy, honesty and integrity, and self-confidence), and six state-like individual differences (decision making, interpersonal skills, management skills, oral communication, problem-solving skills, and written communication).
Ultimately, the researchers found that although both types of individual differences were important predictors of effective leadership, their relative impacts didn’t differ much.19 Additionally, the amount of variance in leadership effectiveness that was explained by individual differences was typically influenced by the leader’s organizational level and organization type. For organizational level, variances in effectiveness were better explained by individual differences for those in lower levels of leadership, rather than higher levels. Organization type also mattered, such that a willingness to adjust to change was more strongly related to leadership effectiveness in government and military settings.
The findings from this 2011 meta-analysis suggest the existence of a dispositional component to effective leadership, supporting Carlyle’s Great Man Theory. However, buildable knowledge and skills are also important for effective leadership, which suggests that leadership models should expand to include these more coachable characteristics.
Great man or great myth? It really does seem like it is a mix of the two perspectives. Of course, “great man” refers to innate traits here, rather than support of the idea that only male heroes deserve credit or respect.