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Queen's professor Julian Barling is author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders.
Queen's professor Julian Barling is author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders.

BUSINESS SCHOOL RESEARCH

Nature or nurture: How is a leader produced? Add to ...

Are leaders born or bred? The question was recently put to 400 Canadian CEOs and senior executives by Julian Barling, professor of organizational behaviour and the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston.

The leaders were also asked about gender equality in the upper echelons of corporate Canada and what skills and abilities today’s business executives ought to possess. Their answers were surprising and, in some respects, disappointing.

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Dr. Barling explores many of the same questions in his new book, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders, recently published by Oxford University Press. He’ll be speaking Wednesday at the Toronto Region Board of Trade and next week in Vancouver and Calgary as part of his book promotion tour.

The survey was conducted between Jan. 20 and Feb. 14 by Toronto-based Environics Research Group and is thought to be accurate within plus or minus 5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

According to the survey results, 43 per cent of respondents said business leaders were born with leadership skills and 45 per cent believed leadership skills are taught. Who’s right?

Anybody who says it’s exclusively one and not the other, irrespective of which one they choose, is making a mistake. Who is actually correct is the 12 per cent who said both. The so-called neuroscience revolution has enabled researchers to look at this issue in ways they hadn’t beforehand. They can now identify a genetic predisposition for who becomes a leader. But genetic predisposition doesn’t account for everything. It accounts for about 30 per cent. They get that from doing research on identical and non-identical twins. Essentially, what they are looking at is if one identical twin becomes a leader, is there a likelihood the other one will also become a leader. It’s much greater than the likelihood for a non-identical pair of twins. The interesting and really important thing from an organizational or business perspective is if everything about who becomes a leader were genetic, I think our selection processes would look very different. In actual fact most of why people become leaders is a function of environmental and family factors and [events] that take place throughout their lives.

The question of whether leaders are born or bred is something you examine in your new book.

It’s a really important topic because there are people who will tell you that leadership is something you are born with. And if it’s something you are born with, then it absolves people of all responsibility. I think that’s the dangerous implication. That would mean that wonderful leaders are simply lucky people and leaders who don’t do as well, well, it really wasn’t their fault. So why should organizations devote large amounts of resources developing leadership if, after all, this is nothing other than a genetic predisposition?

In the book you draw on the example of Nelson Mandela as someone who was a truly transformational leader and a lot of people conclude that to achieve what he did you had to be born with his leadership qualities.

Yes. We tend to do that when we stand in the face of such almost inexplicable leadership. But I think when people do this, they forget to truly examine Mandela’s life story. When you do that you see that from a very early age he was exposed to wonderful role models. He had wonderful opportunities to practise his leadership. He went to the University of Fort Hare [in Alice, South Africa], which roundabout the time that Mandela was there produced five other people who became heads of African countries. When Mandela became an articled law clerk, he had two white Jewish bosses. Mandela said being exposed to them taught him about non-racial leadership. So I think we really need to look at both sides before jumping to conclusions.

He also reached out to his opponents, the supporters of the apartheid regime, on both a personal and political level. What do you think that Mandela could teach today’s political leaders?

I think one of the lessons is that to Mandela leadership was never about rallying the people who support you. Mandela spent more of his leadership trying to change people who did not share his values than he spent on rallying his supporters, often times to the extreme frustration of his own supporters. I think that was one of the lessons today’s leaders and politicians could most certainly learn from Mandela.

To get back to the survey for a moment, when corporate leaders were asked to estimate what proportion of corporate board members in Canada are women – it’s currently 15 per cent – the majority of respondents vastly overestimated the figure. What does this tell us? Is this something they are not paying attention to?

I think that it’s something they are almost choosing not to pay attention to. The real issue for me is not that most corporate leaders get it wrong. The real issue is that when you give them the correct information, as they did in the survey, and then ask them if they would support mandatory quotas, the overwhelming majority said no. For me the worrying thing is where is the groundswell for change? If our corporate leaders are quite content with what’s going on and don’t want mandatory quotas or legislation, the impetus for change may have to come from somewhere else.

And it’s worth pointing out that the majority of respondents were male, 64 per cent.

Over the last decade, [the proportion of women who sit on boards] has increased by about 4 per cent, which is about a 0.4-per-cent increase per year. Which means that if you just leave things as they are, by the time we reach gender parity neither you nor I will be around.

Why is change so slow in coming?

I think you put your finger on it when you said most of the respondents are men. We have a classic dilemma. We are asking men to give up their position of privilege and power. There are very few people in the world who do that voluntarily.

So what can be done?

If we look to other countries, Scandinavian countries mandated that 40 per cent of board seats had to be held by women and they are getting pretty close to achieving that. Once countries implement quotas and attach tax penalties and tax rewards for achieving them, companies move to them pretty rapidly. Countries don’t simply legislate quotas overnight. They have an advisory period before the legislation is enacted. Companies start to change before the legislation is enacted when they know that’s the road they have to go down. I worry a lot about what young girls see when they look around the world and dream about the future. I think what they see are symbols that remind them of how attaining those positions will be so difficult.

When the respondents were asked what skill or quality today’s business leaders lacked, a majority said empathy. Yet when they were asked what skill or quality they personally lacked, empathy was near the bottom of the list. Most said financial acumen and business sense. How do you square the two? Are they just not very self-aware?

What I tried to do was look at groups of attributes. So if you take empathy, communication skills, ethical judgment, creativity and ability to inspire, these are what we would call soft skills. When you ask [business leaders] what is the single skill that they lack, what do we get? It’s financial, business, strategic skills, time-management skills, technical skills, delegating and problem solving. It’s all the so-called hard skills, which are relatively easy to teach. In a sense what they lack is the soft stuff, the stuff that’s really difficult to teach. And yes I think it’s based on a self-awareness issue.

Aren’t soft skills those often associated with women?

We know from decades of research that on average, and yes there were exceptions, women tend to be more democratic, more participative and more transformational, which you read in the literature are the very attributes more closely linked to organizational effectiveness. On average men tend to be more autocratic, or intriguingly, more laissez-faire, which are the very attributes that are less associated with organizational effectiveness. Well, then surely that would mean that you would find women disproportionately selected into the ranks of leadership. Well, not so much.

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