My doctoral dissertation leadership research primarily focused on the impact and relationship between leadership and adversity. However, a material additional component of my leadership was to evoke from the sixteen prominent leader’s descriptions their concepts of leadership, as well as their styles of leadership, including transformational leadership.
The sixteen prominent leader / research participants each had their own unique life journey in dealing with adversity and then working to become a successful and accomplished leader. One common theme is that obstacles or adversity in the early lives of the participants, such as the loss of a parent, poverty, discrimination, or even being a Holocaust victim, was not the seminal or most important event in their lives. They each grew through the experiences that came with increasing responsibilities in their careers, or through significant career changes. Successfully overcoming the obstacles in their adult lives helped them to grow. The encouragement, guidance, and examples from mentors played a significant part in their lives.
My in depth Doctoral dissertation research into leadership and adversity has shown me that a mentor, especially a servant-leader mentor, can teach a person how to overcome the obstacles and adversities of life. Enlightened mentors or servant-leader mentors are a classic example of someone who uses transformation leadership techniques and skills in the life.
The leader I interviewed commented on the importance of being the enlightened and caring mentor can guide from their own personal experiences with adversity. They are some who has been there and has successfully overcome the difficult problem or major adversity. In some cases, mentors may teach mentees which way to go based on their experience of taking a wrong path and having learned a better way. The mentor may have experienced and overcome some other, even more horrendous, difficulty in his or her life’s journey that could inspire the mentee to higher heights.
The sixteen prominent leaders that I personally interviewed identified nine important qualities of a leader. Many of these leadership traits, including though usually associated with transformational leadership, are found in the lst from my leadership research:
1. Honesty or integrity
2. A high level of people skills
3. Initiative, assertiveness, drive, or determination
4. Excellent communication skills or willingness to speak up, take a position, or take charge
5. Vision (being forward-looking)
6. Desire or passion to lead and inspire
7. Positive attitude and self-confidence; charisma
8. Knowledge of the business and/or group task at hand; competence
9. The ability to overcome adversity or obstacles
The sixteen prominent leaders that I interviewed for my Doctoral dissertation research into leadership and adversity specifically identified an additional four important qualities that are not commonly found in the academic leadership literature.
10. Being a Servant-Leader, serving people, and especially being humble
11. Having both religious faith and strong family ties
12. Framing or recognizing the worst adversity as an opportunity
13. Having a mentor or mentors in their development as leaders (Haller, 2008, pp. 116-117)
Several of my leadership research participants acknowledged the refining nature of adversity, but it was not really a “transformational leadership traits,” but rather a comment on their experience with overcoming adversity, obstacles, abuse, discrimination, death of a parent, or in one case the Nazi Holocaust.
Leadership Attributes or Traits, and Transformational Leadership
I have found from my personal leadership experience and my doctoral research in the area of leadership foundations, that transformational leadership especially important in the “real application” of leadership. Starting back in the 1980s there was a resurgence of researchers updating the academic literature with their findings, repackaging, and comments leadership trait theory. Many of the leadership scholars focused there framing on leadership traits in the context of discussing transformational leadership.
Review of Recent Research on Individual Traits or Attributes
My finding from my personal interviews and their answers to my questions on “What is Leadership” and “what help them become leaders” resulted in the list of 13 leadership traits I just listed from my leadership research with sixteen prominent leaders. Many of my thirteen leadership traits mentioned where often found in the leadership literature. The findings, re-naming and framing of trait theory and transformational, or situational leadership research was led by scholars such as, Austin, Blanchard, Johnson, Kouzes, Posner, Peters, Waterman and Zigarmi. Some authors commented on trait theory by adding their concept of “excellence” as the objective of leadership success. Much of the leadership theory research focused on the important effects of being a transformational leader.
A great number of the studies done on traits by researchers in the first half of the twentieth century used young children or high school/college students as their subjects, including Bass & Stogdill. Much of the research done on leadership traits after 1950 started to focused on business managers, major company CEOs, and recent college graduates entering management training programs in large firms..
By the second half of the twentieth century, the theory that leaders were “born” had been rejected by several major researchers, including Bennis , Gardner, and Kotter. Van Fleet and Yukl held that certain characteristics improved a leader’s chance of success and that those characteristics included initiative and fortitude.
Kouzes and Posner’s did extensive research identified respected and admired characteristics in leaders necessary to “make or build” a leader. Kouzes and Posner identified nineteen qualities or characteristics as being the most admired in leaders; which they claimed were consistent over decades of time and across six continents.
Their list of leadership trait list was consistent with my own leadership trait list. They started with “honest,” which was selected by 88% of the respondents. Their other top three traits were: (a) forward-looking, (b) competent, and (c) inspiring, and these concepts were found in my list of 13 Leadership Traits from my Doctoral research.
The comments and findings from my research into the foundations of leadership from the sixteen prominent leaders consistently stressed the importance of transformational leadership from my Doctroal dissertation research into leadership and adversity are consistent with the bulk of the leadership literature, but a material new element on the effects and impact of overcoming adversity and specifically the importance of transformational leadership.