As we survey the path leadership theory has taken

Adult Characteristics of Leaders: Communication and Interpersonal Understanding

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Adult Characteristics of Leaders: Communication and Interpersonal Understanding

The entire ensemble of traits and behaviors that constitute the adult leader, including interpersonal understanding and expertise in the realm of communication, make up the final elements. Persons who reach levels of significant authority and responsibility typically will have above average intelligence but many also have an extraordinary ability to communicate orally and in writing and a keen understanding of human behavior. The importance of communication, including listening, cannot be overstated for leaders for these skills emerge as one of the top qualities of effective leaders.49 As illustrated in the cases that follow, leaders are eloquent in speech and in other forms of communication as well, whether it’s the case of Father Hesburgh articulating the nature of a Catholic university that also wants to achieve excellence academically, or Bill Friday receiving an unheard of standing round of applause from a North Carolina legislative committee on appropriations or Hanna Gray leading creative efforts to rejuvenate an ageing faculty at the University of Chicago. In these contexts, the linkages between leaders and their communities or organizations are also of vital importance. Their credibility and successes hinge on the strength of their ties to their organizations and on their knowledge of the audiences and cultures of the groups, as well as on the level of their “technical” knowledge appropriate to their industry or sector.

As Robert Caro has shown in his remarkable books about US President Lyndon Johnson, many leaders have great intelligence in the realm of human understanding. Lyndon Johnson was not a reader of books. He was instead “a great reader of men. He had a genius for studying a man and learning his strengths and weaknesses and hopes and fears, his deepest strengths and weaknesses: what it was that the man wanted—not what he said he wanted but what he really wanted—and what it was that the man feared, really feared.” Johnson in fact would instruct his younger assistants in reading men: “Watch their hands, watch their eyes,” he would say. “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.” And he urged them to focus on a person’s weaknesses because weaknesses could be exploited and to read between the lines: “The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you. The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.” Lyndon Johnson himself could “read” with an unerring genius that would be difficult to teach. According to Bobby Baker, one of Johnson’s closest aides: “He seemed to sense each man’s individual price and the commodity he preferred as coin.” 50

More recently, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist at Harvard, has developed the notion of emotional (or personal) intelligence, exhibited at the highest levels by individuals who are exquisitely attuned to the needs, interests, and fears of others. While some of this characteristic might be genetically derived, it certainly is also a learned trait that can be perfected into one’s late teens. Franz Humer , the CEO of $22 billlion drugmaker Roche, is known for his ability to “read” audiences and groups. He traces his skill back to his youth when he was a tour guide and learned from the reactions and comments of the various groups to predict how much of a tip he would get.

A rhythm of life, as Gardner calls it, is another important element of the mature leader. Established leaders take the time, whether it’s the spiritual retreats of Gandhi, or the lengthy walks of French president Charles DeGaulle, or some daily exercise routine, to withdraw and reflect and be by themselves. Reflective time alone is associated with the development of self-awareness, an important marker in many leaders. It helps them to ponder what is truly important to them. Routine withdrawals from the often-intense demands of the office recharge leaders and contribute to their overall balance and to their physical and psychological stamina.

Clark Kerr once remarked that he always set aside Sundays for gardening and for his family: “The big weeds,” he smiled, “were the Board of Regents and the small weeds were the faculty.” Bill Friday still often recalls the advice of his predecessor Frank Porter Graham:

Most of the problems, over 90 percent, you see on a daily basis are slightly different versions of problems you have seen before. These are generally easy to resolve. But the other 10 percent are the ones you have not seen before and the ones you didn’t anticipate. It is for these challenges, like the time the FBI agent walked in my office to tell me about point shaving in our basketball games, that you need all of your mental strength and your clear thinking. You need to be ready for those.

A Recapitulation

Before moving to the presentation of the six cases that follow, it is useful to summarize briefly the import of the conceptual framework laid out in the previous pages as a guide to the understanding of the cases. Leadership is a fundamental element of the human condition. It is universal to the extent that society is universal and it is linked to whatever it means to be human: to want, to need, to love, to feel, to control, to belong. It is largely symbolic, which in turn underscores the overarching relevance of communication within and across a society. Leadership is a reciprocal, two-way conversation between leaders and followers that takes place in and around institutions and social systems that have existed for decades and even centuries.

There is power in leadership. More importantly, however, there is persuasion and the process of adaptation. And effective leaders learn to face difficult issues and to reconcile differences among factions of their followers. The inevitably temporary nature of leadership is also a crucial factor, with leaders seeking to “stay the course” and grappling with the self-interests of followers as they together attempt to achieve a common group goal. The nature of the university as a complex organization, where goals might not be widely shared and where there is a wide range of stakeholders with different concerns and with intermittent participation in organizational goals, makes these institutions especially difficult to govern and lead.

Discussions about biology might seem bizarre within the context of leadership in complex organizations. But in fact such a perspective is fundamental to an appreciation of leadership. While humans are not monkeys or lions, the dominance relationships observed among some animal species are also present among pre-schoolers. Dominant youngsters are followed and imitated and they control toys and initiate games. Size, intelligence, and attractiveness all contribute to placement in human social hierarchies. Biology offers important lessons in the struggle for dominance and for leadership.

From the early lives of children one sees the seeds of many of the characteristics that later define adult behaviors, particularly the importance of the historical contexts and early environmental influences. The generation of William Friday, Ted Hesburgh, and Clark Kerr witnessed the problems attending the Great Depression, with its deep conflicts and tragic human suffering and with one-third of the labor force either out of work or seriously underemployed. Many in that generation faced significant adversity as children and adolescents at home, and they developed or exhibited patters of response that research on resiliency is uncovering. Travel and exposure to vastly different cultures is also an early component in the development of an ability to translate and to understand or empathize with people and events that were different than their own experience. Exposure to “foreign” cultures, whether through travel abroad or even through extensive travel within an enormously diverse country such as the United States, exposes future leaders to a variety of ways of thinking and behaving at critical stages of development.

Thus, these notions about leadership inform the content of the cases. Many dimensions of adult leadership have their roots in childhood and early adulthood so each case focuses on the particular patterns of experience that shaped each of the six presidents. For example, how do these young leaders differ from their peers? What are some of the key early experiences and the family patterns? Are there early signs of unusual gifts or talents? Are there distinguishing or particularly striking physical features? Did they do some things unusually early as compared to their peers? Intelligence without the ability to express it is often unnoticed: how well did the young leaders speak and write? How did they develop these traits? Are there also signs of great perseverance in the face of substantial odds or of unusual or otherwise extraordinary behavior at an early age, as might be suggested by insights from resiliency theory? Were there significant mentors or important teachers in their lives, and how did they contribute to the development of the future leader?

Reading biographical materials about famous individuals involves a bit of voyeurism. Many are naturally curious about the stories of those they’ve admired from a distance and about their childhoods and careers. But there are also solid reasons to study extraordinariness in all of its human manifestations—in leaders, in creative individuals, even in celebrities. Their pilgrimages might suggest the way to a more complete life for others, their patterns of behavior point to common elements that might be useful in the development of less exceptional young people.

Of course, as Machiavelli reminded the prince when he wrote about “fortuna,” elements of luck and of situation are always important ingredients in the recipe of achievement: the luck of exceptional talent and gifts such as those of Jesse Owens or Emily Dickinson; the fortune of growing up with a silver spoon like John Kennedy; the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time like Winston Churchill in 1939. But as Csikszentmihalyi observes in the context of creativity, “many people with similar luck aren’t creative.”51 Indeed, the distinctiveness of the lives of extraordinary persons underscores the obvious fact that they were able to follow a road less traveled and it is worthwhile to see how they did it. And in all societies, the compelling importance of childhood, of the early lives of future extraordinary individuals, is always a beginning point of study.

For the adult leader, interest focuses on ways in which leaders affected the behavior of others and in the “stories” they embodied and communicated within and outside their organizations. Within the context of universities, examination of the political pressures facing leaders who work in collegial or collaborative domains is also vital. What were the defining styles of dealing with the wide variety of “stakeholders” such as faculty, alumni, trustees, legislators, and athletic “boosters”? University presidents come from many professional backgrounds. Most travel a traditional academic road: faculty experience in certain disciplines, movement through the administrative ranks, and then the presidency. But others are more unorthodox. How do these differing paths affect the leadership styles? What values do they tend to exhibit (are they pragmatic political stylists or visionary academic leaders or are they externally focused on growth and fund-raising?) and are there notable or distinctive patterns depending on their backgrounds and early careers?

A note on method is in order before reviewing the case studies. The present effort is neither exclusively inductive nor deductive and tries to avoid both camps by incorporating findings and successes from these two approaches: the theoretical and the experimental. The book also makes a formal technique decision by combining empirical information with some speculation to form an interpretative essay. It tries to develop a structure of leadership bringing together various empirical and theoretical motifs using the six case studies. The essential assumption is that idiographic, or qualitative, approaches that study selected individuals in detail can make valid and significant contributions to the general principles that help explain the phenomena of leadership. Some disciplines, such as anthropology, widely use ethnographic methods, a qualitative form of research that focuses on close observation of particular phenomena. Typically, the ethnographer focuses on a community (not necessarily geographic, considering also work, leisure, and other communities), selecting informants who are known to have an overview of the activities of the community.

It is erroneously assumed that qualitative work is a first draft of quantitative research of more “rigor.” According to this view, when little is known about a subject, the purpose of the qualitative “first draft” would be to generate multiple hypotheses that can later become better defined and to which quantitative methods may be applied and validated with “empirical rigor.” Thus, the notion that qualitative work is best suited only for the early stages of research has tended to dominate the thinking in leadership research. In areas like decision sciences and strategic change, however, the dominance of quantitative methods has been successfully challenged and qualitative methods have played a major role. Indeed, it is important to realize that individual experiments, simulations, and surveys are themselves “cases” in this general case, provided they are studied as real world events in their wider context. 52

The merit of the case study method used here lies in its ability to consider large number of factors together and in their relationships. Why not use another technique, such as multivariate analysis? Multivariate techniques, with their reliance on measurement, imply that it’s appropriate or even possible to measure most of the relevant traits or that their interaction is somehow separable; this seems implausible in the very complex and complicated processes of leadership and followership. If the research interest is in processes rather than traits, as is the case in this book, then another research technique is necessary. In the case of the university president, the need is to understand leaders in their setting and situation; in this case, an emphasis on measurement would tend to de-emphasize the context of what is being studied. And the need for large numbers of subjects for statistical validity also raises the question of the appropriate “control group” for exceptional leaders, who by definition are a small group. What would be, for instance, the control group for Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi? It might thus be better to start on widely agreed cases rather than on a large group of navy officers or graduate students.

The dynamic nature of leadership also creates great challenges for exclusively quantitative approaches. There is an evolution in the capabilities, interests, and levels of effectiveness of leaders over time. The CEO during the first year of tenure is typically a very different leader from the one after five years in office because of, for example, changes in the relationships between leaders and followers and also between leaders and their organizations and environments. The static nature of quantitative approaches misses most of these evolving circumstances. It is in fact the complexity of the phenomena of leadership that creates the need for broader, more multidisciplinary and qualitative approaches such as the one followed here. 53

At the same time, over-reliance on interviews as the sole source of information can be an important shortcoming to qualitative work. In this study, a variety of methods were used to supplement interviews with the six principal subjects. Method triangulation, through observation and document analysis and discussion with followers, co-workers, and others, was a necessary adjunct to interviews. No single measurement approach is perfect, and qualitative work would fall into the same trap of the single method of the quantitative approaches if it were to depend on a singular solution. There is the related challenge, as highlighted by Van Maanen, of discerning between operational and presentational data.54 Operational data is defined as being more “genuine,” as obtained from candid interviews and activities engaged in and observed by the researcher. Presentational data is more contrived and designed to maintain a certain public image. Whether the approach is qualitative or quantitative, there exists the same dilemma of people presenting information as they think they “should” or with the benefit of hindsight. The study of leadership can be particularly prone to the use of presentational data and this study carefully has attempted to distinguish between the two types of data.

Art: The chapter, especially this final section defending your methods, needs a conclusion. What do you hope your methods will do for your book? (You can wait on this, but leave the note so we don’t let it drop).

1 Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe

2 Bass and Stodgill (Handbook of Leadership: Bass, 1990

3 Yukl, Leadership in Organizations.

4 Stodgill

5 Lewin, Kurt. “Field Theory and Experiment in Social Psychology: Concepts and Methods,” American Journal of Sociology 44 (1939): 868-896.

6 Melcher.

7 Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership; Heifetz, Roland A. Leadership Without Easy Answers; Gardner, Howard. Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership.

8 Sorenson, Georgia. An Intellectual History of Leadership Studies: The Role of James MacGregor Burns.

9 Zaleznik, A. and M. Kets de Vries. Power and the Corporate Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1975.

10 As quoted by Conger, Jay A. “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership in Organizations: An Insider’s Perspective on These Developing Streams of Research.” Leadership Quarterly. Vol. 10. No. 2. Summer 1999. p. 150. From Bennis, W. and B. Nanus. Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper and Row. 1985. pp. 218.

11 Gardner (Leading Minds) acknowledges Erik Erikson as a mentor who inspired his work on leadership and draws from Freud and Piaget in articulating his views of the personality of the young child. Both Freud and Piaget agreed that children pass through “stages” in early childhood, but disagreed on the nature of those stages.

12 Dawkins, 1976

13 Eibl-Eibesfeld, 1989; J. Hogan, 1978

14 Hogan, Robert, G. Curphy, and J. Hogan. “What We Know About Leadership, Effectiveness, and Personality.” American Psychologist. June 1994.

15 Cohen, Michael D. and James. G. March. Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. McGraw-Hill: New York. 1974.

16 Offerman, L. and Gowing, M.K. “Organizations of the Future”

17 Hogan, R. et al.

18 March and Cohen. Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. pp.195-196.

19 Padilla, Arthur and S. Ghosh. “Turnover at the Top…”

20 Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Pantheon. 1994.

21 Schur, M. Freud: Living and Dying. New York: International Universities Press. 1972.

22 Miller, Patricia. Theories of Developmental Psychology (2nd edition), New York: W.H. Freeman. 1989.

23 Wright, Robert. Ibid.

24 See also the book review by Robert Hogan of Wright’s book: Hogan, R. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright, in Personnel Psychology. Summer 1996. Vol. 49, No. 2.

25 See, for example,

26 Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1980; Schaller, George B. The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1963; Goodal, Jane. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press. 1986.

27 Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, p. 56.

28 Wordsworth, William. “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold.” Accessed from at The quote has also been associated with ageing parents and the passage from childhood to adulthood and to parental care.

29 Milton, John. Paradise Regained. Book iv. Line 220. Accessed from at

30 De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Vol.1. New York: Vintage Books. 1945, pp. 28; Piaget, Jean. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International Universities Press. 1952; Erikson. Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton. 1968.

31 Garner, H. Leading Minds, p. 25.

32 Ibid., p. 28-29.

33 Ibid., p. 28.

34 Putnam, Robert D.. “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp. 65-78.

35 Gardner (1995); Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: HarperCollins. 1996; Kerr, Barbara A. Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness (2nd edition). Gifted Psychology Press: Scottsdale, AZ 1995; and Viney, John. Drive: Leadership in Business and Beyond. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 1999, for example, highlight the pattern of missing fathers or of turmoil during childhood or adolescence among many future leaders and creative individuals.

36 Rutter, 1990; Werner and Smith, 1992; Zimrin, 1986.

37 R. Subotnik, L. Kassan. E. Summers, and A. Wasser. Genius Revisited: High IQ Children Grown Up, Norwood NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp. 1993.

38 Kerr, Barbara A. Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness. (2nd ed.) Scottsdale, Arizona: Gifted Psychology Press. 1995.

39 Werner & Smith, 1992; Rutter, 1990.

40 Katz, p. 26.

41 Werner and Smith.

42 This list of factors is based on Joseph 1994 and on references cited therein, as well as on Coutu, Diane L. “How Resilience Works.” Harvard Business Review. May 2002. pp. 46-55.

43 Garmezy, N., & Masten, A. (1994 pp. 191-208). “Chronic adversities.” In M. Rutter, L. H., & E. Taylor (Eds.) Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (3rd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

44 Gardner, H. Leading Minds.

45 Erikson, Erik. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton. 1968, p.87.

46 Kerr, Barbara 1995.

47 Ibid. Georgia O’Keefe was furious when she was once called the “greatest woman artist” because she felt her gender should not qualify her status in the world of art. John Slaughter expressed a similar reaction to the newspaper story describing him as “one of the most prominent African-American leaders in higher education…” shortly before his retirement from Occidental College.

48 Male mentors of female mentees, or white mentors of African American mentees, might have to overcome the initial obstacle of their gender or ethnic difference. Once past that hurdle, there is evidence that mentors of any gender or ethnic background can function effectively with mentees from any background. See ­­­_______.

49 Whetten, p.

50 Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. p. 136.

51 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity. 1996. p. 151

52 See, for example, Bromley, 1986.

53 Conger, Jay. “Qualitative Research as the Cornerstone Methodology for Understanding Leadership.” Leadership Quarterly. 9 (1). 1998. 107-121.

54 Van Maanen, J. “The Fact or Fiction in Organizational Ethnography.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 24 (4): 539-550. 1979.

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