Leadership is one of the most studied, analysed and debated areas of business research, but according to DBA graduate and WA Australian Institute of Management Deputy Executive Director, Dr Shaun Ridley, our level of confidence in truly understanding leadership attributes remains low.
Shaun's research tackled the analysis of leadership from a different angle - using a new technique applied to the study of leadership which focused on the perspective of the follower (or subordinate).
Through a series of questions Shaun was able to isolate which leadership characteristics were considered more attractive (or important) to subordinates. "Using this technique we were able to isolate characteristics to determine precisely which leadership attributes are most valued or attractive to followers," Shaun said.
This technique is more often associated with the marketing field. He added, "For example, you may ask a series of questions of the buyer about the attributes of a car, such as ‘Would you rather a four cylinder car, with leather seats, four doors and a six-stack CD player, OR, would you like a six cylinder car, with cloth seats, four doors and a single CD player'. By analysing a series of combinations such as this, we can determine which specific attributes are key to the buying decision.
The eight leadership attributes chosen were; inspiration, vision, trust, communication, alignment, self knowledge, change, and role model. Initially, subordinates were asked to rate their current leader against each of the eight attributes.
Shaun said he was surprised with the end results. "The average score for the subordinates' current leader was only 4.5 out of 10. It was disappointing that the average was so low," he said.
Shaun also tested the attributes the subordinate least liked to trade-off, that is, which attributes were the most valuable or attractive in a leader. "The top three attributes, that people were least willing to trade-off, were inspiration, trust and communication," he said.
Shaun said the business implication of his research is intriguing. "There is obviously lots of room for improvement, because people currently don't rate their leaders highly. The results indicate that current leaders can definitely improve their leadership skills," he said.
He added that although we all have an opinion about leadership - we generally don't actually have an agreed view on what it is. "Leadership tends to be seen as one single concept, but in reality it is a combination of several factors - some of which are more important than others," he said.
"The research does indicate that inspiration, trust and communication are essential ingredients for every leader which should not be underestimated," Shaun said.
When reflecting on how his research impacts on Executive Education programs Shaun said the application is very interesting.
"If the research can be replicated and we can discover which leader attributes are critical to leadership through the eyes of subordinates, then leadership development programs can focus on these attributes," he said.
"Leaders will then be able to hone their skills and behaviours to maximise their ability to influence change and lead their teams and business units. Until that time, inspiration, trust and communication are three attributes each leader should personally review in themselves," he stated.