June 15


Can leadership be defined? Part 3 – What do person based definitions of leadership tell us? By Max Eskell

Even under the increased scrutiny of the modern world, there are still leaders who are able to command attention and who engender followership.  While Barak Obama and Christine Lagarde are great examples of charismatic leaders in positions of power, there are also examples of leaders who do not occupy formal leadership positions.  Take for example Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot by the Taliban for going to school, or Emma Watson the actress from Harry Potter and who is now a leading Women rights advocate and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.  Other examples of person based leaders are people who have built knowledge or expertise in their respective field, such as Denial Goleman (emotional intelligence) and Daniel Kahneman (behavioural economics), who have become leaders in their respective fields.

But what do person based definitions of leadership tell us about leadership?

Person based definitions of leadership have been used to identify what makes leaders successful, in the hope that these traits or skill could be replicated.  Studies after WW2 sought to determine what separated successful leaders from their less successful counterparts.  While some of these findings were useful (see below or here), indexing traits, skills or characteristics have several pitfalls.


A list of ‘traits’ or ‘characteristics’ is also troubling, as lists have a habit of getting longer, and the inclusion or exclusion of a trait or characteristic is often arbitrary.  When you search a specific population of leaders (for example WW2 military officers) you will find some very common traits.  For example, all leaders were white, male and middle-aged.  While these findings correlated these traits with better leadership, it would be hard to argue that they were the cause of better leadership (as the bad leaders were also male).  Therefore, we have to be very careful  how leadership research is conducted, and the population from which the sample of leaders is taken.

Traits or characteristics are rarely binary.  For example, too much self-confidence may result in over-confidence or even arrogance.  Therefore, self-confidence is an advantage, only under certain conditions.  If you are in an environment where you have expertise, then self-confidence is justified (for more read work by Daniel Kahneman).  However, in an environment where you have little expertise, or where cause and effect are delinked (e.g., the stock market) too much self-confidence is likely to make you overestimate your ability.

While person based definitions of leadership fulfil our desire for lists of skills or traits, these definitions fail to provide the subtlety and depth needed when our environment changes.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found this helpful.  In my next post, I will focus on aim to explore results based definitions of leadership.