Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Leadership Attributes That People Like

In early 2014 Ian Mitchell, a Programme Director at American Express, submitted a discussion question to the Harvard Business Review group on LinkedIn.  Mitchell's question:  "What is the single most important quality for a leader to have?"

I am unclear what formally passes for "going viral" on LinkedIn but this one question, as of the end of May, has generated over 5,000 comments.  I decided to investigate, using the comments in the stream, "what ARE the attributes that people think make up a leader?"

If there is a way to download all the comments I don't know it, so I copied and pasted a sample into an Excel sheet.  Then, using a series of simple transformation and filtering tricks I removed all of the noise and distraction that comes with a simple "copy and paste" and whittled the file down to only those responses that elicited a "like" inside the discussion. In a truly circumstantial outcome, in this manner I came down to 100 comment types in the sample I chose.  To recap, I have a 100 item subset of 5,000 comments within a group of people who are users of LinkedIn and are members of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) group within LinkedIn.

To make my small analysis more approachable I've filtered further.  A number of people respond to Ian's request for "the single most important quality" with multiple qualities, e.g. Trust and Humility, or with paragraphs. In these cases I typed the comment with the first type used, not both.  Also, in my cut and paste sample the most dominant comments that were liked were those that explained that the answer is situational, unknowable,.. a mystery,  There were 1047 likes across my sample comment types.  318 of these are in the comment type I labeled "Situational Mix."  I created this chart with those comment types that are not "Situational Mix":

Almost all of the attributes that got more than 10 "likes" are about the leader's character, not the skill set.  Trust, Integrity and Humility lead the list.  Then the ability to communicate is cited, ending in this list of most-often-liked with the redundant Leadership.

The pattern extends in the types I've summarized as 6-10 likes and 1-5 likes. Words like "passion,", "reliability", "compassion" and "virtue" are listed.  "Analysis," "negotiation," "synthesis," and similar skills are not cited.

Because its the HBR group the respondents, whether CEOs or not, most likely have at least some leadership responsibility, even if in a small group.  With fair reason we can expect these people to be leaders or directly interact with them. Yet, in reading, the responses strike me as aspirational.  They read more as what people think leaders should do, what people wish their leadership does do, than as analytical of the actual behavior of leaders.

My method doesn't approach science so I'll end with observations.  First, a simple question on LinkedIn can generate enormous activity.  In this case the question is about the attributes of "leadership."  Leadership seems to be something people are passionate about.  At the same time, leadership is something that people do not appear to be consistent about.  Except for the high concentration of people who say "its a mix of things" that describe leadership, there is little consistency in the responses.  People care about leadership.  They know it when they see it. But they don't have a simple, shared expression of what it is.

Doug Brockway
May 2014

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