No three steps here.
No five different guides.
Just one single idea.
Let’s stop thinking about employee engagement. Ditch the “Top 10 Traits of Being A Leader”. Push those thoughts you have away after reading a book on leadership by Simon Sinek.
No matter what kind of leader you are and who you are leading, the context does not matter. Great leaders exist in every field and industry, from your college football team to the data team at Google.
Each discipline demands different traits and management skillsets—albeit fluid. Yet it is always centralised around a specific type of blend—but the critical point does not come in how “much” of a specific trait we are.
Many successful leaders today all began with similar foundations: it is through years of exercising and flexing the leadership muscle that led to their success. Talent is overrated here; leadership is something that can be developed and grown over time, according to The Leadership Quarterly.
Like training a muscle, we all begin somewhere.
In fitness, the fundamentals must be learned correctly and solidified before complex exercises and programs can be incorporated.
The locus of leadership lies in the fundamentals.
Leadership has so many positive connotations: many people have different images of what leadership looks like. Some can have heroic images. Others tie it very closely to someone dear in their life, be it in the workplace or within their circle.
Regardless of what image it is, we all know what a good leader is like.
There are charismatic leaders who seem to dazzle everyone with his authenticity and strong character.
There are leaders who seem to be perpetually patient and tolerant: she only wants you to succeed, and she wants to help you. Sincerity pulls through all the time.
Here’s the big question: what do all these great leaders share that makes them great in the first place?
It’s not that they are charismatic: some leaders are introverted and hate talking on stage. We don’t see every single C-suite in the company give a keynote, right?
It’s also not that they are patient: some leaders want results, fast. They hold that to a strict standard. Not everyone is that tolerant of mistakes.
In their very own sense and with a unique blend within every one of them, these leaders are fundamentally good humans before they were great leaders.
Are humans even good in the first place?
Humans spent hundreds and thousands of years spent walking on the earth. Science has spoken: we still suck.
Even when there are a plethora of philosophies marked by tens of thousands of years in thought, human nature remains a contentious issue—especially the inherent goodness in people.
For centuries, psychologists have attempted to dig deep into the brains of humans, trying to understand why we do certain things and what sort of things will we do when left to our own devices.
A joint study in 2014 by Harvard University and the University of Virginia showed that we’d much rather electrocute ourselves—literally—than to contemplate in our thoughts for 6–15 minutes.
Within the myriad of different research studies that psychologists have done, one of the most significant issues is on the inherent nature of humanity: are we inherently good or bad? This is a fundamental question that provided fodder for discussion.
Thomas Hobbes, a 16th Century philosopher, wrote Leviathan and argued that humans were savagely self-centred.
Widely thought as the first autobiography in the Western world, the Confessions of St. Augustine, contained proclamations that all people were born “broken and selfish”. Sigmund Freud also argued that human nature is fundamentally selfish—violence is a feature—not by error or mistake—of humanity.
Philosophical arguments aside, empirical data also showed different sides of human nature.
Our belief in karma led to many of us willing to blame the underprivileged, impoverished, diseased and stricken people for their own fate.
A-Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences study in 2018 showed that we enjoy schadenfreude at only six years old. Children are literally capable of understanding and enjoying punishment being enacted.
Perhaps Freud was right with his theory on human nature: a study in 2016 by the American Psychology Association showed that preschool children expect reciprocation when they know someone is indebted to them.
In addition, we begin dehumanising people who belong to an outgroup (those belonging to people who live in a different city or who are of a different gender than the child) when we are five years old.
Philip Zimbardo is famous for his Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). “When you put good apples in a bad situation, you get bad apples,” said Zimbardo, who had to prematurely stop the study after the ‘guards’ became overwhelmingly sadistic and tyrannical.
This 1971 study showed that people can be corrupt with power—unless of course, there was manipulation involved to make that happen, which formed the main bulk of the criticism against the SPE.
It turns out, that’s false.
Haslam responds to Zimbardo’s defence of his work with the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Dr. David Amodio (Assoc. Prof @ NYU), talking about the SPE as a fraud.
Diving deep into the archives of recordings during the SPE, Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland noted the power of identity leadership at play here: Zimbardo manipulated the guards with his assistant. The British Psychological Society refuted his original claims in a 2002 replication of the SPE known as the BBC Prison Experiment that people were reluctant to accept their roles so readily.
The difference between the replication and the original?
The experimenters in the 2002 study only ensured that moral and ethical standards were kept. There were no suggestions or leadership involved: it was all unobtrusive observation from the sidelines.
What about Milgram? Famous for the shock experiment in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study where he had a ‘scientist’ encourage a participant to give a deadly electric shock to another participant.
The conclusion? People can go crazy with the shocks (participants went from giving 150-volts to 450-volts) and humans are prone to be blindly obedient—which therefore encouraged a shocking feature of human nature.
A joint study by the University of Wisconsin and University of Siegen showed something different: these participants realised that the experiments were not dangerous at all.
72 per cent of participants made claims that suggested they realised the experiments posed no danger to the other participants at least once in their post-experiment interview.
The conclusion is clear: these dispiriting studies are not enough to disprove the empirical research on the fundamental goodness of a human being.
The reality is, humans are capable of both good and evil.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and every other person too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.”
Psychologist Steven K. Baum cited an old Native American tale in his book, The Psychology of Genocide which showed the duality of human nature.
Man can be both wonderfully good and disgustingly bad. The unique nature of mankind is predicated on the plethora of external factors like upbringing, living environment, trauma, and past experiences, which shapes many people when they arrive in adulthood.
Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that Man is inherently peaceful but corrupted by society. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes saw mankind as inherently violent but civilised by the community—in this case, we are simultaneously both “naturally peaceful” and “naturally violent”.
While a paradox, it is clear that how cooperative or selfish we are is different within each individual and hinges on a myriad of genetic and environmental influences.
Consider this: if there was a software capable of quantifying how much of a ‘trait’ we possess, every individual would differ even in the decimal points.
Good humans in leadership
The jury is out—for a long time—on how humanity has survived as a whole: we are a community species.
We thrive when we rely on cooperation, which forms the core of Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last. By intuition, we are cooperative, according to a Harvard University study in 2012.
So, the verdict is out: humans are good, and we need each other.
Here’s the question then: what traits go into being a great leader?
Fundamentally, human nature is already such a contentious issue and therefore, by default, so are the extensions of it.
However, rather than focusing on what goes into the blend, leaders need to focus on the fundamentals. The core belief here is that the locus of effective leadership lies in being a good human.
The locus of effective leadership lies in being a good human.
Bringing back to the point on how leadership can be trained, being good humans allow leaders to train a lot faster.
The reality is that many of the leadership qualities that Forbes, Entrepreneur.com and other authors champion are easily reconciled with the fundamentals of being a decent human being.
Good humans in leadership
Good humans care about the survival of the tribe, tapping on innate interdependency. Great leaders, therefore, carry that throughout: it is the team that needs to survive, not just one person.
As mentioned before, we are innately cooperative.
Great leaders tap on this instinct to be inclusive. It is a focus on teamwork and group effort.
Fundamentally, good humans would want to do good for one another—as it is the unique human trait of being altruistic. This traces back to the origin of humanity—creating value without having reciprocation.
Good humans tap on their desire to assist and help other people. Great leaders make full use of such desire, giving up time and putting into helping their team in solving problems and building projects.
The key here is that they see the benefit in having their teams grow: and that in itself is a form of “good-human leadership”.
However, great leadership is a multivariate existence as well, with leaders having their unique blends of traits and qualities.
Great leaders share different traits in different compositions. What is more significant here is context: what is the work at hand here? What kind of qualities does it demand and what is the team most receptive to?
Leaders must understand their team to shape their leadership decisions. By extension, good human beings would willingly empathise and understand other human beings contextually close to them.
There is no clear, obvious answer as to “what makes a great leader”. Instead, the answer to “what is the first step to becoming a great leader” is glaringly obvious here; being a good human, at our core, is key to practising great, effective leadership.
Like great leadership, the composition of traits in a good human is also multivariate.
However, the focus is not on what goes into the composition, but on the fundamental idea that being a good human is critical to the success of a leader.
How can we truly comprehend the idea of being a good human, then, if there are so many variants of it?
That is where external factors and experiences unique to ourselves, come in. They are the ones that shape the fundamentals and decide the blend.
Again, it is really about understanding the person across the table, fully embracing every flaw and strength, choosing positivity over anything.
When we think of leaders, the common examples might be Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
They are people who inspired a movement and created deep, profound change in their environments. They lead differently, with differing compositions of charisma and ideologies.
However, these are “heroes” — in our current day and age, such heroes are few and far in between.
We recognise a hero when we see one. It is not critical for every leader to be a hero: what we should focus on is the impact that we can have on the lives of those who are close to us.
Great leadership is not about being a hero.
It is about the matrimony between leadership, humanity, and management. It is a delicate blend between a timeless concept and reality. We ground our ideals in leadership with facts like the job at hand, the team members’ unique combination of attitudes and traits.
Also Read: How to make gender equality training work
There are a million guides to being a great leader, with a million more books and theories on how we can practise great leadership.
There are people who write about being a good human as a composition of traits we “should practise” as if goodness is a muscle that needs to be trained and flexed consistently like leadership.
Being a good human is a call for high-level self-awareness. It is a total reconciliation with oneself, coupled with the comprehension of why being a good human is critical to ourselves and the people around us.
Regardless of the environment and experience that you have, when you are a good human being, all you need to do to become a great leader is to make a conscious choice to be a good human being every single moment, with every single person.
That is how great leaders can stay consistently great, regardless of the tides.
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Image Credit: Katherine Chase