In a Complex World, Is It Possible to Define Universal Leadership Traits?

In his essay “American Power in 21st Century,” political scientist Joseph Nye writes, “Power always depends on context. The child who dominates on the playground may become a laggard when the recess bell rings and the context changes to a well-ordered classroom.”

Nye’s words suggest an uneasy perspective on power that claims an individual’s authority is not stable fact, but a combination of variable, dynamic factors. In his example, the child’s seniority and ability shift with a change in environment. The qualities that make the child respected—or feared—among their peers depend on context.

On scales large and small, history seems to confirm Nye’s point of view. A contextual idea of power, however, is at odds with popular sentiment. A search engine query for “leadership qualities” returns nearly half a billion results, largely comprised of articles that enumerate the traits that make a great leader or define great leadership.[1][2][3][4] But if Nye is correct, and power depends on context, how can one set of attributes apply to all leaders and leadership styles? Or, is there a kind of leadership profile that can successfully accommodate constant changes in rank and weather any difficulty?

A tangible example may help illuminate the answer. One well-worn, metaphorical embodiment of leadership is a ship’s captain—so, what makes for a good captain? Her skill in steering her ship through turbulent waters? Her influence in keeping her crew unified and their spirits high? Is it the measure of her performance in terms of speed, navigational means, fishing ability, and so on? Indeed, how one interprets a captain’s efficacy depends on how she engages in a multitude of specific challenges and tasks, as well as numerous environmental factors such as the vicissitudes of the sea and weather, the personalities of the crew, the size of the ship, and much more.

This complexity appears in all examples of leadership. A great candidate might not become a great president. A revolutionary figure could become a dictator. A talented compromiser who excels at creating policy might be too deliberative and hesitant during times of crisis. Circumstances and situations always change. Even a supposedly fixed context—a “fact,” like the fact of a two-party system—shifts with time, economics, and the cultural zeitgeist.

Moreover, personality is not static. Human beings are subject to changes—sometimes fleeting, sometimes lasting—in mood, attitude, and patterns of behavior. A president at the end of his second term may be more inclined to push for certain legislation that seemed unattainable during his first days in office. A CEO who has suffered a personal tragedy may reconsider her company’s mission. Decision-making not only evolves with age but hinges on apparently trivial details such as a person’s quality of sleep and what they last ate.[5][6]

Corporate advisors, HR professionals, and sociologists are addressing these questions of fluctuating contexts in terms of VUCA: short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. For those familiar with VUCA, the impulse to define all-round leadership qualities or definitive traits of leadership can seem myopic. After all, a certain set of traits or styles of leadership only suits one type of person, in one kind of industry or discipline, at a particular stage in that person’s life and at a specific moment in time. A fixed set of characteristics also doesn’t take situational diversity into account.

So, if effective leaders are, in fact, situational leaders—that is, they can move between styles and behaviors—what sorts of distinct qualities should they try to embody? Those thinkers who are working with VUCA often cite these attributes as qualities leaders need to have:

  • Adaptability: the ability to change and adjust to new conditions.
  • Agility: the ability to move quickly, with minimal collateral damage done or risk taken.
  • Resilience: the ability to traverse manifold situations and challenges without losing focus and determination.
  • Empathy: the ability to listen to and understand others, accept new ideas, and admit shortcomings.

To that, I would add the ability to doubt. We do not typically think of “doubt” as a positive leadership trait, but perhaps the ability to question and change course when necessary is exactly what a captain needs to keep her ship safe, sound, and unified. Literature on VUCA points to the same conclusion: in order to be flexible enough to work with the 21st century challenges of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, a leader needs the capacity—and the courage—to doubt.[7][8] It questioning long-held assumptions that power is equivalent to strength, and uncertainty equals weakness. A leader need not rule the playground or the classroom, but be able to learn, grow, and contribute fully in both environments.

Otherwise, if we can’t reflect on our courses of action, on our tried and true behaviors, we get stuck. What has taken us this far might not work for the future. We may look decisive, but we’re steering in the wrong direction. Or, to paraphrase General Stanley McChrystal, author of Team of Teams: we may be doing things right, but are we doing the right things?


[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=leadership+qualities
[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyaprive/2012/12/19/top-10-qualities-that-make-a-great-leader/
[3] http://www.inc.com/peter-economy/the-9-traits-that-define-great-leadership.html
[4] http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/252916
[5] http://insights.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/SleepWell.pdf
[6] https://hbr.org/2005/01/overloaded-circuits-why-smart-people-underperform
[7] http://www.thunderbird.edu/article/adaptive-leadership-vuca-world-tale-two-managers
[8] http://www.amazon.com/General-Stanley-McChrystal-Takeaways-Analysis-ebook/dp/B010CV3U62/