What Makes a Leader?
Executive ability (Analysis)
|Publication:||Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2000 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2000 Source Volume: 28 Source Issue: 3|
|Persons:||Named Person: Williams, Wendy|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
Take a group of people, all of relatively equal intelligence and
learning as measured by academic success. Why do some go on to shine as
leaders while others do not?
Every new MBA knows that, to get ahead, she must support her boss and further the company's goals. And every West Point graduate knows full well what formal military doctrine dictates: officers must pass on as their own all orders that come down from above. The very best business managers and military leaders, however, know better.
Men and women who are rising stars in business and in the service understand that those who must lead from afar can lack insight into a situation, hence sometimes they make decisions that aren't necessarily sensible. And a manager or an officer who passes on such an order without question or comment jeopardizes credibility with his or her subordinates. So a savvy junior leader might handle the situation by saying to his or her people something like this: In life we all have to do things we don't want to do. We're part of a system that, in general, must depend on accepting leadership from the top brass. In this case there may be problems, and I'm going to do what I can to make those problems known to the higher levels. But in the meantime, I hope you'll bear with me, pull together, and do your best.
"This scenario is an example of a person highly skilled in managing others, someone who knows how to give orders without alienating people," says Wendy Williams, the co-principal investigator of a six-year, $1.4 million Army Research Institute grant to study success at leadership. Her collaborators on the project were psychologist Robert Sternberg of Yale University, Joseph Horvath of IBM Corporation, and Colonel George Forsythe and his associates at the United States Military Academy.
In interviews with three levels of commanders stationed at six military bases across the country, Williams and her colleagues found that although their West Point training had been geared toward officer preparation (as well as rigorous academics), following it to the letter of the law didn't necessarily prepare them for the subtle exigencies of command. In similar interviews with the managers at four hightechnology companies, Williams found, once again, that there was a lot more to being an effective leader than what was taught in business school, and that what separated the great from the not-so-great leaders had little to do with academic intelligence.
In the military study Williams and her colleagues interviewed West Point men and women of wide-ranging experience, from young lieutenants who were assuming their first command, to company commanders in their mid-30s, to seasoned battalion commanders. The researchers wanted to know what experiences had really tested their mettle, the situations they thought could make or break a career. The conflict between following military doctrine and maintaining soldiers' confidence in their judgment was one of many.
"We found that a lot of these critical incidents had very little to do with their formal military training," Williams says. "It became clear that West Point graduates could do very well in a rigorous academic setting, go out into the real Army and practice what they'd learned, and find that there was a lot more that they needed to know in order to succeed optimally," she says. The same was found for the business managers.
The researchers also found the converse to be equally true: some business managers and West Point cadets who were reasonable but not outstanding students turn out to have a wonderful gift for command.
What exactly is this gift? Why, among people of relatively equal intelligence--as measured by success in school--do some shine out in the real world while others don't? Williams found a significant part of the answer lies in what she calls practical intelligence.
Practical intelligence, she says, consists of three types of abilities--the ability to manage yourself, the ability to manage others, and the ability to manage the organization or environment. Managing oneself encompasses a set of skills that include knowing how to motivate yourself--how to get yourself going, how to set goals and priorities (including what needs to be done on any given day to meet your career objectives), how to be organized and stay on task.
People who manage the organization or their environment well understand the goals and functioning of the overarching organization. These people can see their part of the organization within the larger picture of the broader organization and the world at large.
People with practical intelligence gain these abilities not through book learning but through life's lessons. Williams calls these accumulated lessons tacit knowledge--knowledge about how to be successful that's not usually explicitly talked about. It's the tricks of the trade people learn as they go along, often by watching others.
In her studies of business management and the military, Williams took the critical incidents interviewees described to her and wrote a series of vignettes, each with a range of solutions. She then posed these to managers and officers of lesser to greater leadership ability, as judged by both their superiors and their co-workers.
What was really great is that the best leaders answered the questions in a remarkably similar way," Williams says. "Even though these people came from different backgrounds--different families and personal lives--the successful leaders saw something in common in these situations that you and I might not see."
These findings reminded her of the old saying, "There are many ways to fail in life, but the routes to success are few." That being the case, why not take what she learned and make a road map for business managers and military officers lacking in tacit knowledge? That's exactly what Williams did.
In her book Success--Acts for Managers (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahway, N.J., in press), written with Sternberg, Williams takes the same vignettes of critical incidents the managers had described in her research and lets the reader ponder the optional solutions. She then presents how the most (and least) successful managers handled the situation and discusses why. In this way Williams can bring home the lessons of experience, perhaps sparing the reader from making the same mistakes the less successful managers made.
"This actually works very well," Williams says. "As we know from reading biographies, while there's no substitute for our own experience, we all can benefit from the experiences of others."
Williams' research, which has an elegant crispness about it, makes sense to people. Yet some would argue that there is no way to formally study questions such as who will succeed as a business leader or who will become an outstanding military leader, that some people just have it--whatever "it" is--while others don't.
"What we've done is a program of research that shows that you can enumerate, then teach the skills that lead to success," Williams says. "It's all about democratizing, about making available to all people the lessons of experience formerly available to only a few."
What Would You Do?
You are a company commander, and your battalion commander (your superior officer) is the type of person who seems always to "shoot the messenger"--he does not like to be surprised by bad news, and he tends to take his anger out on the person who brings him the bad news. You want to build a relationship of trust with your battalion commander. What should you do? Rate the quality of the following strategies for achieving your goal.
a. Keep the battalion commander informed only on important issues, but don't ask for advice or bring up issues you don't have to discuss with him.
b. Speak to your battalion commander about his behavior and tell him how it affects you.
c. Tell your battalion commander all the good news you can, but try to shield him from hearing the bad news.
d. Tell the battalion commander as little as possible; deal with problems on your own if at all possible.
e. Attempt to keep the battalion commander "over-informed" by telling him what is occurring in your unit on a regular basis (e.g., daily or every other day).
Practical Intelligence for Teens
How come some young teenagers are successful in school while others languish, or even fail? Just as she's done in her research with adults, Wendy Williams turned to the kids themselves for the answers.
She and her colleagues asked sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in 13 urban and rural New England schools to tell her about the critical incidents they face in the classroom and how they handle them. The students who felt good about themselves and their school experience, whom teachers thought were doing very well, and whose grades showed it, shared some of their tips for success:
* Choose paper topics with your teachers interest in mind and build upon your special personal talents and experiences. You'll be more likely to get a higher grade.
* Keep your book bag organized. Even though it's a pain, do it every single day.
* Learn sound strategies for guessing on tests and for combating the nervousness and anxiety you feel beforehand (for example, getting enough exercise and sleep, avoiding caffeine, sticking to a routine, taking mock tests ahead of time to practice, and talking about your worries with friends or parents).
* Question your teacher if you're confused about something, either in class or after class. That's the way to get useful clues or hints.
This is the kind of advice that students in middle and upper socioeconomic classes may get from their savvy, involved parents. But there are plenty of youngsters whose mothers and fathers are under such severe economic pressure that they have little time for dinner table coaching or who themselves lack this tacit knowledge.
Williams' book Practical Intelligence for School (co-authored with five others; HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1996) offers student-defined insider information--skills and strategies that really work--in a program that's easy for middle school teachers to use in the classroom. In follow-up studies, Williams found that students who received this training--who were from different socioeconomic backgrounds and attended diverse schools--showed significantly greater increases in reading, writing, homework, and test-taking abilities.
"Kids who haven't been taught the ins and outs of school at home benefit a whole lot," Williams says. "But even for more privileged kids, a little extra help never hurts."
Other books of interest to teachers:
Sternberg, R. J., and Williams, W. M. (1996). Developing Creativity in Students and Teachers. Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Williams, W. M. (1996). The Reluctant Reader: Why Children Don't Choose to Read and How to Help Them. New York: Warner Books.
Williams, W. M., Brigockas, M. G., and Steinberg, RJ. (in press). Creative Intelligence: How to Enhance Children's Creative Abilities. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Predicting Success in Graduate School
It's easy to understand how overworked graduate school admissions officers find it convenient to use test scores--such as those from the Graduate Record Examinations--to make the first cut when those waves of applications come rolling in. Numbers seem such a clean, scientific way to set on acceptable standard of excellence.
But it doesn't always work that simply, says Wendy Williams. In fact, the practice of ranking applicants' scores, drawing a line, and accepting only those above a certain number is a self-defeating strategy that can deprive institutions of outstanding talent.
"We have young men and women who come in with extremely high scores on the GREs, who have perfect undergraduate grade point averages, and who do not succeed in graduate school," says Williams, who studies the assessment of intelligence and related abilities. "Others with much more modest records sometimes become the shining stars. Everyone in higher education has seen this."
The reason? GREs, which are really just a type of intelligence test, Williams says, have only modest value in predicting success in graduate school, let alone in the world of the professions beyond.
In a study Williams conducted with Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg, she found that the GRE did predict one thing: grades in the first year of the graduate program, but only weakly. It did not predict grades in subsequent years or any of the other indicators of success, which Williams cites as "the ability to think analytically, creatively, and practically; the capacity to teach and conduct research; and the quality of one's dissertation."
Williams and Sternberg only found one exception: the analytical subtest of the GRE--a measure of logical and analytical reasoning ability--predicted the quality of dissertations, but only those of the men.
If the standard IQ-type tests are such limited predictors of graduate school success, wouldn't it be far better to come up with ones that more accurately assess the skills needed in a particular discipline or profession? Williams thinks so. She and her colleagues in the Department of Human Development are designing just such a test for the social sciences.
The test evaluates a student's ability to review an article written in the field. In addition, Williams says, it also "assesses applicants' abilities to pose and defend an interesting research question, to devise studies to answer specific research questions, to prepare a plan for an introductory lecture, to organize a brief talk for a professional conference, and to interpret sensibly a confusing set of research findings."
Tests such as this, tailored to each field, would result in sensible and fair scores that provide valid information about how well students will really do in school and beyond.
"The future of our educational institutions--and of our society at large--depends on the admissions decisions that we make," Williams notes. "And the size of our nation means that decisions probably must continue to be based on some kind of test scores. So it behooves us to understand what our tests do and do not predict."
|Gale Copyright:||Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.|