Monday, February 13, 2012

Great Leaders Always Have Key Characteristics in Common

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It seems that the topic of leadership has attracted much attention throughout history, but the concept of leadership itself is difficult to define since it can mean different things to different people in different situations. Leadership can be broadly defined as ¡°identifying purpose, establishing direction, gaining commitment, and motivation others toward success¡± (Inkson & Kolb 0011). From here we can see that leadership, in essence, is a process. The above difficulty is, at times, also true of the notion of greater leaders. For example, The majority of people usually put Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Gates in the list of great leaders; however, some people may consider Adolf Hitler, often regarded as a bad person, as a great man or a great leader. The reason is that people often look at the question based on their own standings or points of view. In effect, one of the most debated topics in the field is whether or not great leaders always have key characteristics in common. In this essay, I give a brief introduction to key characteristics of great leaders with reference to trait theories. And I am going to discuss its limited usefulness; and at the same time, I am going to point out some major problems of the statement. First, these characteristics do not appear to be effective in all situations. Second, these characteristics themselves can not guarantee success of great leaders. We are concerned about what they actually do rather than what they are. Third, people can become great leaders through learning and training. Some social and cultural issues are mentioned as well in the discussion.

Since the beginning of the 0th century, people have been interested in the research of leadership. There is no doubt that ¡°leadership is widely regarded as a central determinant of organizational performance¡± (Fulop & Linstead, 1, p.1). Distinguishing personal characteristics or traits were thought to be the most important part in selecting leaders, such as intelligence, self-confidence and appearance. The trait approach is ¡°the most basic approach to understanding leadership focused on the notion of trait, that is, the assumption that good leadership resides in the innate abilities of certain individuals who are considered to be born leaders ¨C usually ¡®great men¡¯ of history such as Churchill, Gandhi, etc¡± (Fulop & Linstead, 1, p. 161). In terms of trait theory, leaders are born, and good leadership can be achieved by selecting those people with these proper traits. The research on trait theories has been going on for many years. Different leadership researchers put forward diversified personal traits of leaders. Shelly Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke (11, p.48-60) cited in Fulop and Linstead (1) believed that certain traits appear to have an impact on leadership effectiveness. These leadership traits are drive (ambition and energy), leadership motivation (the desire to lead), honesty and integrity, self-confidence, cognitive ability (intelligence), and knowledge of the business (Fulop & Linstead, 1, p.16).

Needless to say, these traits are particularly important for the success of a great leader. People have long believed that leaders have common characteristics. When we talk about great leaders, ambition, self-confidence, and personal charisma are the words we often hear of. But, think over, the critical term here is always. Can we really identify the personal characteristics or traits that differentiate leaders from non-leaders, and effective leaders from ineffective leaders? Graham Elkin and Kerr Inkson (000) maintained that

Research (trait approach) in this area (leadership) has met with only modest success. There are traits which make a difference. For example, leaders tend to be more ambitious, honest, self-confident, intelligent, and knowledge about the job than are non-leaders. However, the correlations are small, typically explaining no more than 10% of the variance. This means that though it is worth looking for such characteristics when we are selecting leaders, we would do well to recognize that some of the characteristics mentioned are extremely difficult to measure.

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(Elkin & Inkson, 000, p.0)

To begin with, it is quite possible that a person is a great leader in one situation, but that does not guarantee that he is effective or great in another situation. In his research in 148 and following years cited in Daft (1), leadership researcher Stogdill indicated that the importance of a particular trait was often relative to another factor ¨C the situation (Daft, 1, p.65-66). For example, creativity may result in success in one situation, but it could be irrelevant to a leader in another situation. He concluded that the value of particular traits varied with the organizational situation (Daft, 1, p.66). A leader in the multinational corporation or in the government department does not necessarily mean that he or she is also a great leader at home or in other situations. One obvious example is Mao Tse-dong, founder of the People¡¯s Republic of China. No one can deny that he was a great leader in the war times. He led Chinese people to establish new China. However, in the process of country¡¯s construction, he lacked capability in managing the nation and thus led the country to terrible devastation. Without Deng Xiaoping, it is very hard to imagine what China would become. However, Deng was quite short, contrary to what many trait theorists believe that leaders tend to be tall (Stoner & Freeman, 18, p.461). As Fulop and Linstead (1) pointed out that ¡°even if it was accepted, for example, that Gandhi, the charismatic leader from India who in the 140s led the independence movement, was a born leader, it is impossible to establish that his qualities would create effective leadership in another culture or society¡± (Fulop & Linstead, 1, p.16). Cultural diversity needs to be taken into account in this aspect. In Asian countries, strength of the group may be more emphasized; while, in western settings, individual traits may be more predominant. Therefore, practice that may be effective in one situation may be ineffective in another situation. As a result, effective leadership must be adjusted to meet the demands of different circumstances. As Elkin and Inkson put it

it is more important to acknowledge the vast variance in leadership ability that can¡¯t be explained by an analysis of personal traits. When we consider the enormous range of different situations in which leadership has to be practised ..., it is not surprising that we can¡¯t accurately predict the traits that will be applicable across all situations.

(Elkin & Inkson, 000, p.0)

Secondly, the personal traits can not guarantee a leader¡¯s success. We can find out that quite a few people possess these characteristics that great leaders may have. But that does not mean that all these people are great leaders. In fact, it is almost impossible that every one with the personal traits can become a great leader. Stoner and Freeman (18) pointed out that a large number of studies of leaders and leadership have failed to prove that any trait or personal quality is consistently associated with effective leadership (Stoner & Freeman, 18, p.45). They further proposed that ¡°although millions of people have these traits, most of them obviously never attain leadership positions¡± (Stoner & Freeman, 18, p.461). In addition to that, people are more concerned about a leader¡¯s actual behaviour rather than his or her personal characteristics because the effectiveness or greatness is revealed through behaviour. As Robbins (17) put, ¡°traits do a better job at predicting the appearance of leadership than in actually distinguishing between effective and ineffective leaders¡± (Robbins, 17, p.4).

Finally, one of the negative sides of trait theories is that it also invloves the assumption that it is not possible to develop leaders through training (Fulop & Linstead, 1, p.161-16). In the present competitive society, the importance of vision in the leadership process is often focused on when leadership is discussed because leaders need to establish a sense of direction. Where does the vision come from? It might be a natural ability; however, it is more likely to come from a person¡¯s learning process and experience. Equally important is the ability to communicate with other people, the ability to inspire people and to raise people potential. All these can be achieved by learning or by training like any other behaviours. ¡°Leadership may come from anyone. It does not have to come from a higher-status person. Someone with particular expertise can exercise leadership¡± (Elkin & Inkson, 000, p.05). In many cases, the evidence of the traits is unclear in separating cause from effect. Robbins (17) argued that it is hard to know that some traits are born or made. For example, are leaders naturally self-confident, or does success as a great leader make him self-confident (Robbins, 17, p.4)? He also believed that past leadership experience should be a reasonably good predictor of future leadership performance (Robbins, 17, p.4).

In short, although great leaders may have certain characteristics or traits that differentiate them from non-leaders, they do not always have key characteristics in common. No traits can be applied in all situations. Effective practice in one situation may be not appropriate in another situation. The fact that a leader is great in one situation does not necessarily mean that he or she is also great in another situation. Furthermore, those traits themselves do not represent a great leader. What we need is leaders¡¯ behaviour not their inherent traits. Finally, leadership can be developed through learning or training. After all, almost everyone has some leadership traits; therefore; one might become a leader one day, if not a great leader, so long as an opportunity is given.


Daft, R.L. (1). Leadership Theory and practice. Fort Worth The Dryden Press.

Elkin, G. & Inkson, K. (000). Organisaional Behaviour in New Zealand Theory and Practice. Auckland Pearson Education.

Fulop, L. & Linstead, S. (1). Management A Critical Text. South Yarra Macmillan Education.

Inkson, K. & Kolb, D. (00). Management Perspectives for New Zealand. Auckland Pearson Education.

Robbins, S.P. (17). Managing Today. New Jersey Prentice Hall.

Stoner, J.A.F. & Freeman, R.E. (18). Management. New Jersey Prentice Hall.

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