What Kind of Human Being Do you Want at the Top?
Looking for a new CEO or University president? You want vision, toughness, flexibility and technical skills. You’re in search of a high-powered individual with a great track record, a strategic thinker who will turn your business around, or attract investors or donors, a cracker jack operations manager who can expand markets, relate to the company culture—or change it if necessary. You know what problems you’re facing, what your goals are and what kind of individual you need at the helm. And there are hundreds if not thousands of great scholarly and more practical articles on leadership to guide you (here and here for example).
But what kind of human being do you want at the top?
There’s an unending stream of articles and research that looks at great leaders and describes their characteristics. Here’s a small selection from the popular business literature:
Top ten qualities that make a great leader (Forbes): honesty, delegate, communication confidence, commitment, positive attitude, creativity, intuition, inspiration, approach
22 Qualities that make a great leader (Entrepreneur): focus, confidence, transparency, integrity, inspiration, passion, innovation, patience, stoicism, wonkiness, authenticity, open-mindedness, decisiveness, personableness, empowerment, positivity, generosity, persistence, insightfulness, communication, accountability, restlessness
The 5 qualities of great leaders (Fast Company): flexibility, ability to communicate, courage tenacity and patience, humility and presence and being responsible)
8 characteristics of great leaders (Huffington Post): collaborative, visionary, influential, empathetic, innovative, grounded, ethical, passionate.
I love these lists and couldn’t resist including the details. I find them instructive and inspiring. The academic literature is comparable. Leadership studies look at myriad aspects of leader behavior, leader traits, leadership initiating structures. There are path-goal theories and the contingency model of leadership. What makes the best, most successful leaders in a range of environments and situations?
But with my background in psychoanalysis and psychiatry, I was interested in something else– the fundamental human traits and capacities that any leader who shoulders great responsibility must have to carry out leadership responsibilities. Essentially, the question I wanted to answer was how can we define what it takes to be a mature adult human who can be trusted with lives and fortunes. What do you need to know about a potential leader before you look at your specific needs and your candidates’ specific strengths?
To my surprise, I didn’t find much in the literature on the fundamentals a leader must possess to carry out his or her responsibilities. I felt such a model needed to be grounded in both theory and practice. But during my research, I discovered a remarkable document, the Army Field Manual on Leader Development, that does a stunning job of spelling out the essential traits and capacities every leader must possess—or determinedly develop where there are weaknesses. And, I found, The Army Field manual is founded in the sound psychological research and psychoanalytic theory I was familiar with on ego functions and executive functions, concepts that spell out the highest level mental capacities.
I distilled five crucial traits and capacities from the Field Manual—Trust (the ability to trust others and inspire trust), Critical Thinking/Judgment, Self-Awareness, Discipline/Self-Control and Empathy. Before you consider other specific talents and potential, make sure your potential leaders are strong in these five core capacities of character and ability. I’m not offering a list of qualities that predict success. Instead, these are the absolute necessities — without them, other strengths are irrelevant.
I’m going to explore each of these five traits in greater depth in a series of blog posts. In my elaboration of each of the core capacities, I draw deeply on the Army Field Manual, as well as my own background as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with three and a half decades of clinical practice immersing myself in the motivations, emotions and often irrational behavior of human beings.