It doesn’t take much detailed research to know that most US citizens are frustrated with the domestic political process. Since 2011, the combined total of bills enacted into law was 722. That is 184 less than the total enacted in the famous 80th Congress of 1947-1948, known as the “Do Nothing” Congress. One can site many reasons for this reduction in productivity, but one of them has to do with a personality trait called Agreeableness.
According to the Big Five Personality Index, agreeableness has to do with how kind and cooperative a person is. One aspect of this trait is that the more agreeable you are, the more likely you are to go along with another person’s idea. Surprisingly, some studies have found a negative correlation between agreeableness and leadership. In other words, the less likely you are to go along with others’ ideas, the more of a leader you are. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
Maybe that is the problem with these Congresses: the members’ agreeability scores are too high….or maybe they are too low. If you believe the camp that sees the negative correlation, then our leaders want to be liked but don’t have the force of conviction to get anything done. If you believe the camp that doesn’t feel the correlation is strong enough to be significant, then the problem may be that the disagreeability is too high. In other words, the leaders are so likely to think their own views are the right ones, that they are less likely to compromise and get things done.
The bigger concern, though, is what are we teaching our future leaders? And what should we be teaching them? As a political science student, I learned that compromise was critical to governing. The best laws are the ones where everyone walks away partially satisfied. As an MBA student, I learned that compromise is the worst solution to a negotiation because neither side walks away satisfied.
So which is the right answer for future leaders? It depends on what type of leadership the situation requires. Transformational leadership requires influencing others to change their values, standards, goals, needs, and ethics in order to influence at both the individual and institutional levels. It is the type of leadership we hope our political leaders have. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, focuses on exchanging work for resources, such as getting subordinates to do work in exchange for pay. It is the type of leadership we hope our business leaders and managers have. The positive correlation between agreeableness and leadership seems to be much more important for transformational leadership, and less so for transactional.
So where did we go wrong? Perhaps it begins with our educational system that doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the different types of leadership. Many leadership courses extoll the importance of finding consensus, of being “nice,” of giving everyone buy-in, of listening to all sides of an argument. At the same time, we regularly hear politicians talk about the virtue of not flip-flopping of sticking to their guns, of not settling for less. We also see examples like Martha Stewart and Steve Jobs: successful businesspeople who get impressive results but are renowned for being horrible bosses. Not settling for less is great if you are talking about safety and quality in manufacturing. It is not as great when you are talking about how to solve a complex social problem with good arguments on multiple sides.
Perhaps we, as educators and trainers, need to talk more about situational leadership. Perhaps we need to do a better job highlighting that the traits that make one a success in business are not always the same ones that lead to political success. Perhaps we should emphasize more the importance of recognizing what type of leadership is required and give different sets of guidelines for each. Until more research tells me otherwise, I am going to stick to my belief that we need to do a better job of educating people to realize that a consistent leadership approach is not always the best solution.