“You manage machines and lead people.” Impacting words spoken to a doctoral student who was loving her organizational developmental course, and grateful it wasn’t stats. I carry those words close to me as I transitioned from a doctoral candidate, to graduate, to Director of Human Capital. As I work within my organization, I not only move forward with this mantra, but I am able to see my learned leadership theories in action and the implications the different leadership styles have on their team members within the organization. I promise I won’t bore you with the theoretical framework of each theory, well maybe a little, but I will list the practical applications that I have noticed, studied, and observed that are relevant in today’s organizations, and hopefully will help you grow your leaders.

Full disclosure, I might be partial to two of these theories, as my research studied these in depth, but I will put on my unbiased pants and try to give you an honest reflection. My research focused primarily on gender, and youth experiences, therefore I will only touch base with my findings which were, as required by the IRB board, unbiased.

Trait Theories- “What traits make a good leader?”

First, the boring stuff. Trait theory of leadership originally believed that traits were predisposed. Trait theory was the first approach involved with studying leadership characteristics for leaders’ success. There’s a wealth of research that finds the essential traits that characterize an effective leader as having intelligence, determination, integrity, sociability, and self-confidence. Numerous studies also described necessary traits of leaders as having masculine traits such as, aggressiveness, ambitiousness, assertiveness, competitiveness. Are all these innate traits though?

My study (I know you are thinking, here she goes…) demonstrated that traits can be developed and were not merely innate and found that leadership traits were developed during youth and transcended into adulthood. Let me explain why this is important for today’s workforce. I must state the obvious though.

Gender does matter. I said it. It does. It matters to us as adults because as children, we were exposed to different gender stereotypes. I am not saying by any means to indicate whatsoever that males make better leaders. What I am saying is males progress to leadership roles more frequently than females because of the experiences and traits they were exposed to during their youth. Don’t believe me, read my research (shameless plug).

What does this mean for today’s organizations? EVERYTHING. Let me explain why. Growing up, today’s workforce experienced an uneven balance of power in many domains. Young males were exposed to more confidence building experiences such as sports, or rather male sports were prioritized more during youth (i.e., high school male basketball games were Friday nights, female basketball games were usually days when the courts were open). I believe this is still occurs today. Males were and are depicted as role models in media more than females. There have never been more than thirty-five females leading Fortune 500 companies for young females to mirror themselves as. Historically male youth activities and experiences were given priorities thus encouraging the development of many traits in young males that were associated with leadership development such as confidence, competitiveness, and aggressiveness. This created an unfair advantage as these youth transcended into today’s workforce and subsequently, today’s leaders.

By no means am I calling us females’ victims. I am merely stating researched based facts that demonstrated how the leaky pipeline of lack of female leadership came to be. As a Director of Human Capital of an organization in today’s climate that wishes to address such change, I would advocate for employers to promote leadership skills development trainings aimed towards building specific traits that were undermined during youth for females, such as confidence, risk-taking, self-advocacy, and assertiveness. Let’s level the playing field.

Leaders should use practices in everyday life that encourage these traits in the workplace as well. Positive feedback and affirmations support a culture of confidence. Set professional growth goals with the talent, this encourages self-advocacy and self-awareness. Delegate more responsibilities and assign individual projects to encourage assertiveness and ambition. These are a just a few examples of the numerous activities that can enhance traits that are associated with effective leadership. The societal culture that created the gender stereotyping which influences these traits in youth isn’t shifting soon. Therefore, today’s leaders, have the duty to shift the paradigm in the workplace to influence these traits as adults.

Social Identity Theory of Leadership “You are who you know”

Here’s Social identity theory in a nutshell, who one aligns with, shapes who one becomes. It is that basic, or is it? Maybe it’s a little more philosophical than that. Social identity theory viewed leadership as a group process with social categorization as the foundation for leadership development. Sounds formal, I know. But let me bring it relevant to today’s organizations.

This theory found one’s identification within an organization was everything. Awareness of one’s social identity provided leaders with perspective to understand organizational behavior. One was more likely to become a leader if they aligned and identified themselves along with fellow leaders. Lightbulb moment. Therefore, mentoring programs are so important to the professional development to your talent. Align your team with leaders, and they will become leaders. Easy peasy right? Well, maybe there’s a little more to it. I mean, I couldn’t go explaining a theory without another mention of my research.

Here is the deal, unfortunately, I must bring it back to gender. Before you go thinking I’m some bra burning female, let me explain who I am, and am not. I am an equalist. Just because I am female, I don’t consider myself a victim by any means. I just recognize the gender gaps and report the facts in hopes that one day I won’t have to.

Females are not appointed as often to leadership roles as males. Females are underrepresented in top executive positions which extends into today’s C-Suite. Using social identity theory as a framework, and knowing individuals more positively mirror members of the group they align with, the significance of C-suite compositions and other leadership roles are crucial. My study recognized that board diversity was a significant factor in female promotions in the C-suite. Other studies found that male-dominated boards would be more likely to appoint males due to the alignment of their social identity. Organizations must acknowledge this and make every attempt to promote within, qualified females to these positions. Keyword, qualified, don’t set us up to fail, the glass cliff is real.

If you want to apply this theory with leadership development of your talent, then your organization’s culture is everything. Talented people will seek to learn from other professionals in the field. You want a team that is supportive and positive. A team that embraces your mission. Again, that’s why I am a big advocate for mentoring programs as these mentors can not only help develop leaders, but they help shape the attitudes and culture of the mentees. Choose your mentors wisely. Just an FYI, these programs can be individual or group.

Behavioral Theory of Leadership

Full disclosure, I selected this as my final one to discuss (I could write forever, but I probably lost most of you), as I worked in the mental health field prior to switching gears to the world of business. I get this theory, and I think you will too. I also think this theory is applicable in today’s workplace.

This theory finds that great leaders are made, not born. People learn leadership skills through observations and education. Behavioral theory focuses on the actions, not the traits of leaders. You know, the old saying, “actions speaking louder than words,” yeah, that’s this theory.

What’s so good about this theory you may ask (or not)? Well for one, despite your youth upbringing, social circle, or previous life, this theory provides hope for all talent. Supporters of this theory believe that anyone can become an effective leader if they are willing to learn certain behaviors.

Let’s bring this full circle to what this means to you. Through the contextual lens of behavioral theory of leadership, leaders will need to adapt to be cognizant of their talent and adjust their leadership styles accordingly. Sounds like a no brainer, right? You would be surprised to realize how many leaders are unwilling to comprise their style. However, modifying your leadership style to meet your talents’ needs will promote your commitment to your organization and your mission. Finding the right balance isn’t as easy as it sounds though. There will be many hits and misses. Finding the right balance between the different styles of leadership that are suitable for situations requires self-awareness and flexibility.

The good news: leading within the framework of this theory will promote team development through supporting the talents’ individual needs by emphasizing your concern for people and collaboration. This theory will help leaders understand how their behavior affects their relationships with their team and their productivity. It can empower leaders to find the styles that work towards the alignment of the organization’s goals.

To apply this theory as a leader, there are several actions I would recommend beginning or continuing. I know you are probably sick of hearing communication is key, but it is. Your talent craves feedback, in fact, they thrive upon positive feedback (please note the adjective in front of “feedback”). Be approachable to your team. No one wants to work for Ms. or Mr. “not now.” If you want your talent to grow professionally, using this theoretical framework as the background, I suggest individualized development plans that they create with you. Having mutually set goals allows you to see the talent’s motivations and how they respond to challenges you may propose. Set realistic goals that are within their capabilities, and yours. And perhaps most importantly, invest in your talent and get a director of human capital, okay, totally biased on this recommendation.

I would like to point out, I didn’t mention gender once in this theory (minus this sentence).

Let’s Wrap

Enough schooling for now. There are numerous leadership theories out there I could have selected to include. I tried to save you the misery of listing all of them. Here’s what I want you to take away. Don’t shy away from learning and theory application when it comes to leadership development. You need them. They exist for a reason. Theoretical practical applicational sounds intimidating but it’s a giant playbook. Run a route. If you don’t score, pick another.

Footnote: I’ve referenced my research which is only available to the world of academia currently on ProQuest. (Building Strong Female Leaders: Reports of Youth Experiences and Traits From Females in the C-Suite of Fortune 1000 Companies), I know you are dying to read… contact me if you want all 264 pages of wonderfulness sent to you.

Dr. Joelle Paul Cook

Dr. Joelle Paul Cook

Director of Human Capital

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