Analysis: as the outgoing UK prime minister has discovered, being a leader is difficult and it's not enough to just have the right traits for the job

After 44 of the most chaotic days in British political history, Liz Truss has resigned as prime minister, giving her the shortest term in that job in the history of the United Kingdom. A week into her term, there was speculation about if she would last as long as a head of lettuce. In the end, the lettuce won.

I am an organizational psychologist, and one of the key areas in my field is the study of leadership. Can we learn anything from a century of leadership research that will help us understand this most spectacular failure of leadership? I wish the answer was yes, but the sad truth is that our understanding of leadership is still hazy at best.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, listeners respond to Liz Truss leaving 10 Downing Street after just 44 days in the gaff

This has not stopped business consultants from selling books and pulling in consultancy fees by identifying the key traits of leaders. For example, in their study of over 300,000 leaders, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identified 10 key traits of successful leaders (such as problem-solving, motivating and developing others). Others suggest seven key skills (including time management and delegation), or maybe five if you're short on time (ethical practice and civic-mindedness).

Virtually every consulting firm has their own list of leadership traits and two things stand out from studying these lists. First, they rarely agree; different lists include quite different sets of competencies. Second, they rarely go beyond platitudes. Many lists of leadership traits include something like "strategic thinking", but it is rarely clear what this actually means. Perhaps the most serious critique of these lists is that leaders who demonstrate many of these key traits still often fail.

Leadership consultants will usually tell aspiring leaders that they must think strategically, communicate clearly, take initiative and inspire their followers. You can make a case that Truss did all of these things. She emerged as the leader of the Conservatives in a multi-stage, lenghthy selection process in large part because she ticked the right boxes. She inspired the loyalty of a substantial number of party members, had a clear (albeit looney) strategic plan and communicated it clearly in her mini-budget.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News, a profile of Liz Truss's time as British prime minister

Her failure as a leader illustrates one of the weaknesses of research that attempts to identify key leadership traits: content matters. Yu can inspire your followers, articulate a bold new strategy, communicate it well and still lead your company (or your country) into a disaster. If inspiring your followers was the key to leadership, we would include Benito Mussolini and Donald Trump in our pantheon of great leaders. If articulating a bold new strategy was enough, Truss would be a good leader. The simple truth is that leadership research concentrates too much of how you do things and not enough on what you do.

Think about people who are now regarded as great leaders. Winston Churchill spent most of his career in the political wilderness, with many of his colleagues openly questioning his sanity. Franklin Roosevelt changed his policies almost as frequently as he changed his cigarette holder. Ulysses S. Grant was considered a drunk and an incompetent for most of his career.

In all three cases, leadership success was a combination of the person and the situation: they all did the right thing at the right time. More to the point, what they did worked out well. There are a few leaders of lost causes who are revered as good leaders (Robert E. Lee in the American Civil War, for example), but they are the exception.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in July, The Spectator's Cindy Yu assesses the Tory leadership contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak

On the whole, we know more about leadership failure than leadership success. Personality traits and skill deficits can certainly contribute to failure. Truss's ironclad conviction in her own strategy probably contributed to her failure to reach out for consensus. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher's reputation as the Iron Lady was a major factor in her success.

If we have learned anything from a century of leadership research, success as a leader is a combination of the person and the situation. The same leadership behaviours such as drive and broad strategic thinking that caused Churchill to fail in the First World War (his Dardanelles campaign was a tragic disaster) contributed to his success in the Second World War.

Because leadership success is often a question of matching the person with the situation, long lists of the key traits of successful leaders might not be all that valuable. Rather, we might think more broadly about traits that are most likely to contribute to leadership failure. For example, human personality is often described in terms of five broad factors, namely extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and emotional stability.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Brainstorm, why bad people get good jobs

I would argue that substantial deficits in any of these five areas may make it hard to succeed as a leader, especially the last three. Leaders who are undependable, close-minded and emotionally fragile (think Trump) are unlikely to succeed in the long run, even if they show some of the "key traits" that management consultants sell when selecting and developing leaders, such as motivating your followers.

If I was going to make a bet on the personal characteristics that are most likely to contribute to leadership success, I would be go for dependability, resilience and the ability to think broadly and learn from others. This is because these traits make it more likely that you will adapt well to the changing demands that different situations pose.

The best way to achieve success as a leader is probably to land yourself in a favorable situation.

Nevertheless, without the right situation, the most outgoing, agreeable, responsible, wise and stable leader is likely to fail. For example, the current state of the Conservative Party is likely to make the job of Truss’s replacement virtually impossible no matter how many of the key leadership traits he or she possesses. As Gary Streeter, MP for West Devon observed "if the angel Gabriel now takes over, the parliamentary party has to urgently rediscover discipline, mutual respect and teamwork if we are to (i) govern the UK well and (ii) avoid slaughter at the next election."

The best way to achieve success as a leader is probably to land yourself in a favorable situation. The leaders of the US automobile industry were very successful in the 1950s and 1960s because there was tremendous demand and little foreign competition. If you are not in a situation where success is practically guaranteed, I believe that dependability, resilience and the ability to think broadly and learn from others will have a greater payoff than just about anything from any of the lists if key leadership skills you will find in most management books.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ