Overcoming Adversity: The Impact of Leadership Attributes or Traits

My 30 years of experience in leadership and senior leadership positions, my personal background, combined with my academic background uniquely prepared me to do the research into the possible relationship or impact that overcoming adversity has on the shaping of successful leaders. My research primarily focused on the impact and relationship between leadership and overcoming adversity. A material additional component of leadership was the sixteen prominent leader’s descriptions their concepts of leadership, as well as their styles of leadership.

The sixteen prominent leader research participants each had their own life journey. One common theme is that obstacles or adversity in the early lives of the participants, such as the loss of a parent, poverty, discrimination, or even being a Holocaust victim, but they have consistently stated that the adversity was not the seminal or most important event in their lives. They each grew through the experiences that came with increasing responsibilities in their careers, or through significant career changes. Successfully overcoming the obstacles in their adult lives helped them to grow. The encouragement, guidance, and examples from mentors played a significant part in their lives.

My in depth Doctoral dissertation research into overcoming adversity and leadership has shown me that a mentor can teach a person how to overcome the obstacles and adversities of life because the mentor has been there and has overcome the problem or adversity. In some cases, mentors may teach mentees which way to go based on their experience of taking a wrong path and having learned a better way. The mentor may have experienced and overcome some other, even more horrendous, difficulty in his or her life’s journey that could inspire the mentee to higher heights.

The sixteen prominent leaders that I personally interviewed identified nine important qualities of a leader. Many of these leadership traits are found in the leadership literature, which I will comment and review later in this article:

1. Honesty or integrity
2. A high level of people skills
3. Initiative, assertiveness, drive, or determination
4. Excellent communication skills or willingness to speak up, take a
position, or take charge
5. Vision (being forward-looking)
6. Desire or passion to lead and inspire
7. Positive attitude and self-confidence; charisma
8. Knowledge of the business and/or group task at hand; competence
9. The ability to overcome adversity or obstacles

The sixteen prominent leaders that I interviewed for my research into leadership and adversity specifically identified an additional four important qualities that are not commonly found in the academic leadership literature.

10. Being a Servant-Leader, serving people, and especially being humble
11. Having both religious faith and strong family ties
12. Framing or recognizing the worst adversity as an opportunity
13. Having a mentor or mentors in their development as leaders
Haller (2008, pp.13-14)

Leadership Attributes or Traits, and Transformational Leadership Research

Starting back in the 1980s there was a resurgence of researchers updating the academic literature with their findings, repackaging, and comments leadership trait theory. Many of the leadership scholars focused there framing on leadership traits in the context of discussing transformational leadership.

Review of Recent Research on Individual Traits or Attributes

The findings, re-naming and framing of trait theory and transformational, or situational leadership research was led by scholars such as, Blanchard and Johnson (1982), Blanchard, Zigarmi, and Zigarmi (1985), Kouzes and Posner (2002), Peters and Waterman (1982), Peters and Austin (1985), and Peters (1987). Peters and his co-authors commented on trait theory by adding their concept of “excellence” as the objective of leadership success. Much of the leadership theory research focused on the important effects of being a transformational leader.

A great number of the studies done on traits by researchers in the first half of the twentieth century used young children or high school/college students as their subjects (Bass & Stogdill, 1990, pp. 59-77). Much of the research done on leadership traits after 1950 focused on business managers, major company CEOs, and recent college graduates entering management training programs in large firms (pp. 78-88).

By the second half of the twentieth century, the theory that leaders were “born” had been rejected by several major researchers, including Bennis (1989, p. 5), Gardner (1990, p. xv), and Kotter (1990, pp. 103-107). Van Fleet and Yukl (1986) held that certain characteristics improved a leader’s chance of success and that those characteristics included initiative and fortitude.

Mann’s (1959) research on leadership documented the positive relationship between the personal traits of intelligence, adjustment, extroversion, dominance, masculinity, and sensitivity. The work by Jago (1982) asserted that there is a set of qualities or characteristics which can be attributed and measured in those who are perceived to successfully employ such characteristics (pp. 317-319).

Jago concluded that leaders’ behavior is determined by their attributes. Their characteristics, knowledge, and skills, which he called “qualities,” influenced their behavior. Jago focused specifically on how these qualities of a leader interact with the leader’s perception of group attributes, the particular task at hand, and the general context of the situation (pp. 315-336).

Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) extensive research identified respected and admired characteristics in leaders necessary to “make or build” a leader. Kouzes and Posner identified nineteen qualities or characteristics as being the most admired in leaders; which they claimed were consistent over time and across six continents (pp. 24-25). Their list started with “honest,” which was selected by 88% of the respondents (pp. 24-28). Their other top three traits were: (a) forward-looking, (b) competent, and (c) inspiring, having been selected by between 58% and 73%. A fifth quality, “intelligent,” received a 47% response rating from the survey participants (pp. 25-26). Kouzes and Posner administered their survey over a period of twenty years to over 75,000 participants, including ten thousand mangers and business executives and a limited number of government managers (p. 24).
Haller (2008, pp.13-15)

Bass, B. M., & Stogdill, R. M. (1990). Bass & Stogdill’s handbook on leadership
(3rd ed.). New York: The Free Press.
Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Blanchard, K., & Johnson, S. (1982). The one minute manager. New York: William
Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (1985). Leadership and the one minute
manager. New York: Morrow
Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York: The Free Press.
Haller, H.E. (2008)Leadership and Adversity: The Shaping of Prominent Leaders.
Saarbrücken,Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG.
Jago, A. G. (1982). Leadership: Perspectives in theory and research. Management
Science, 28(3), 315-336.
Kotter, J. P. (1990). A force for change: How leadership differs from
management. New York: Free Press.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.).
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mann, R. D. (1959). A review of the relationships between personality and
performance in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 56, 241-270.
Peters, T. J. (1987). Thriving on chaos. New York: Knopf.
Peters, T. J., & Austin, N. (1985). A passion for excellence: The leadership
difference. New York: Random House.
Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence. New York:
Harper & Row.
Van Fleet, D. D., & Yukl, G. A. (1986). A century of leadership research.
Paper, Academy of Management, Chicago.

Author's Bio: 

Howard Edward Haller, Ph.D.
Professional Keynote & Motivational Speaker, Award-Winning Published Book Author, University Professor, Author "Leadership and Adversity: The Shaping of Prominent Leaders" & Leadership Academic Scholar

email: HowardEdwardHallerPhD@gmail.com

Howard Edward Haller, Ph.D.'s groundbreaking overcoming adversity and leadership research was published as a book in late 2008: "Leadership and Adversity: The Shaping of Prominent Leaders," by VDM Verlag Dr Müller AG & CoKG. This book has received great reviews which can be seen online at Amazon in the US, Canada, UK and Germany.

The 16 prominent leaders who overcame adversity and even major trauma, that were personally interviewed by Dr. Haller included: Dr. Tony Bonanzino, Jack Canfield, William Draper III, Mark Victor Hansen, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, Monzer Hourani, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, J. Terrence Lanni, Dr. John Malone, Angelo Mozilo, Larry Pino, Dr. Nido Qubein, U.S. Army Major General Sid Shachnow (Ret.), Dr. John Sperling, Dr. Blenda Wilson, and Zig Ziglar.

Five internationally scholars and best-selling authors peer reviewed and concurred with Dr. Haller's research findings in this groundbreaking overcoming adversity and leadership findings: Dr. Ken Blanchard, Dr. John Kotter, Professor James Kouzes, Dr. Paul Stoltz, and Dr. Meg Wheatley.

Dr. Howard Edward Haller is a award-winning published author: • Keynote and Motivational Speaker to Corporations, Associations and Colleges • He is a Professional Member of NSA • He is a successful Executive Coach & Mentor to Corporate and Non-Profit Senior Executives in the US & Canada • He is SelfGrowth.com Expert on Leadership, Overcoming Adversity and Personal Success • He is a US Presidential National Award and Prize Winning Essayist. • He is an Accomplished Screenwriter, Television writer & Member of the WGAw. • Dr. Haller is a major expert on Overcoming Adversity and Leadership.

Dr. Howard Edward Haller is a well-respected academic writer, editor, scholar and major University Trustee, University Graduate Business School Professor and past President of University Board of Trustees.

Dr. Haller was selected and appointed a member of the Editorial Peer Review Board of the prestigious “International Journal of Servant Leadership,” along with world renowned leadership scholars & best-selling authors.