Effective or Ineffective Trait Leadership Essay

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Trait Leadership

Definitions / Descriptions of Trait Leadership

According to Peter Northouse's book, trait leadership focuses on identifying several qualities: intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability. Published in 2009, Northouse's book (Leadership: Theory and Practice) goes into great detail as to what constitutes trait leadership and what behaviors and values do not qualify vis-a-vis trait leadership. Northouse isn't alone in providing narrative that defines and describes trait leadership. A University of Cincinnati publication (Army Leadership Traits & Behaviors) explains that leadership trait theory focuses on a leader's: a) values and beliefs; b) personality; c) confidence; and d) mental, physical, and emotional attributes (www.uc.edu).

In the book The Anatomy of Leadership (West, 2000), the author asserts that trait leadership "makes the assumption" that there are "distinctive physical and psychological characteristics" -- above and beyond standard leadership -- that account for the effectiveness of a leader. Those traits include "height, attractiveness, intelligence, self-reliance, and creativity…" all have been studied at length, West explains. And among those the most frequently cited are: a) basic intelligence; b) "clear and strong values," and c) "high level of personal energy" (West). The author references research on leadership traits by Edwin Gheselli, who studied and evaluated more than 300 managers in 90 different businesses in the U.S.

Gheselli came up with six traits that he asserted are "important for effective leadership": a) need for achievement ("working hard to succeed"); b) intelligence (not just smart but "using good judgment"); c) decisiveness (not hesitating when making important decisions); d) self-confidence (developing a positive self-image); e) initiative (working without supervision; a self-starter); and f) supervisory ability (getting the job done "through others") (West).

A reader will notice that Northouse uses "integrity" and "sociability" as two of the qualities that trait leaders demonstrate, two qualities that are not found in other descriptions. Of course, not all theorists and scholars share the same viewpoint as to what a trait leader should present, but generally there is agreement that intelligence, determination and self-confidence are pivotal for a person known for trait leadership. The fact that Northouse adds "integrity" is important to this paper because Lee Iacocca is an example of what many would say is an effective trait leader -- but looking closely at his decision-making when he was with Ford Motor Company was seriously flawed.

Looking at West's list of trait leadership qualities, he adds "clear and strong values"; and while those qualities (including integrity) overlap with other qualities attached to strong leaders, they should come into play vis-a-vis trait leadership.

Lee Iacocca -- Trait leadership that failed when it came to Integrity

When a person conducts research the late Lee Iacocca he or she will find that he is highly respected in many circles. He is known as the man who saved the Chrysler Corporation from going totally bankrupt, and his career matches up fairly well with the trait leadership theory. To wit, Iacocca served as chairman of Chrysler from 1978 to 1992, when he retired. When he took over Chrysler, the company was losing money and two of its vehicles (the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare) were suffering public relations problems because of the many recalls they went through. Iacocca pitched his Chrysler fiscal problems to the federal government (U.S. Congress) and secured a bailout that amounted to loans that were guaranteed.

He was seen as a bold maverick in that sense, but he put Chrysler on the road to success by showing several of what Northouse lists as qualities that a trait leader should demonstrate; he clearly had intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity -- and he must have had sociability because he either charmed or cajoled Congress into guaranteeing loans he needed to revive the moribund Chrysler Corporation.

But before he took over the Chrysler job, his intelligence and his integrity -- with reference to certain pivotal decisions he made at the Ford Motor Company -- can legitimately be brought into serious question. So it appears that Iacocca met perhaps three-fifths of the guidelines for trait leadership (at least according to Northouse).

The Iacocca legacy with regard to Ford's Pinto is seriously tarnished. This paper will delve into the decisions he made, some of which clearly cost American car owners their lives. In fact Iacocca made decisions that put profit above safety, and for that he cannot be seen as a man who exemplified the major tenets trait leadership theory.

When Iacocca took over the reins at Ford (at first as vice-president), it was during an era which featured a steady stream of imported cars from Europe and Japan that were being shipped into the U.S. And taking away domestic sales of American-made cars. These imported cars got better mileage than the big American cars that were built for power, speed, and comfort. Iacocca pushed hard to accelerate the design and development of Ford's answer to Volkswagen and other imports -- the Pinto -- and this rush to get the car on the market was, in the end, a disastrous strategy.

Starting in 1972, the Pinto became controversial; Lily Gray and her 13-year-old passenger were in a Pinto that was struck from the read by a car going 30 MPH. The crash caused the Pinto to catch fire killing Gray and seriously injuring the young passenger. A jury trial took place and the judgment against Ford cost the company $560,000 for Gray's death and $2.5 million for the young passenger. Six months later another crash caused a Pinto to catch fire and three women were killed.

There were many more incidents of this nature and the reason that the Pinto was vulnerable to catching fire when hit from behind was a flaw in the placement of the gasoline tank. An article in Mother Jones magazine pointed out that not only did Ford know that the Pinto's design flaws were the cause of accidents that caused death and injuries, but Ford (led by Iacocca) made a strategic decision to save money by not fixing the design.

According to researcher Christopher Leggett, Ford figured that making an $11 production change in each of 11 million Pintos would cost about $137 million. But Ford compared that to the estimated cost (in legal fees and outcomes) it would incur if 2,100 Pintos exploded and 180 people burned to death. "These figures were $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury, and $700 per vehicle" (Leggett, 1999). Those estimated court-ordered costs totaled up to only $49.5 million, quite a bit less than the $137 million it would have cost if Ford had recalled all those Pintos.

"The risk/benefit results indicate that it is acceptable for 180 people to die and 180 people to burn if it costs $11 per vehicle to prevent such casualty rates," Leggett explained on page 3. Of course, from any ethical perspective, it is not acceptable for any passenger or driver of a car to be allowed to die in order for a car company to save money on repairs that could have made the car safer.

Meanwhile, Iacocca can be given credit for several aspects of the trait leadership theory. Certainly he had self-confidence. He had confidence in his leadership because he was the brainchild behind the development and launch of the popular Mustang. And he knew if he pushed and shoved he could get the Pinto into dealerships quickly; Iacocca set deadlines and guidelines for the Pinto including that the car could not weight over 2,000 pounds and could not cost more than $2,000 (Gioia, 1994). The design styling, product planning and engineering for the Pinto were completed prior to the actual "production tooling," Gioia writes. Normal time for a car to be developed, designed and produced was 43 months; under Iacocca the Pinto was in showrooms after just 25 months.

Hence, the "tooling was already well under way" before "routine crash testing revealed that the Pinto's fuel tank often ruptured when struck from the rear at a relatively low speed," and the implication from Gioia (who worked with Iacocca on the Pinto) is that it was too late to go back and change the design to make the car safe. Gioia writes that he had the responsibility to review accidents and suggest (or deny) that a recall was necessary. He sounds arrogant in his narrative when he describes that "problem" was not an acceptable word under Iacocca; the operative word was "condition." And he writes that he "…had little time for speculative contemplation on potential problems that did not fit a pattern that suggested known courses of action leading to possible recall" (Gioia, 102).

Meanwhile in the Mother Jones article (Dowie, 1977) the author interviewed an engineer who worked with Iacocca on the Pinto. Did anyone tell Iacocca that the gas tank exploded on impact? "Hell no," the engineer replied to Dowie. "That person would have been fired," the former high-ranking Ford engineer explained. "Safety wasn't a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee it was taboo." If someone raised an issue that could mean a delay to…[continue]

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