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Learning the lessons of leaders, born and made

If you ask Francis Yammarino, professor of management and director of Binghamton University’s Center for Leadership Studies, the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?” he will likely look you straight in the eye and offer a concise, disarming reply: “Yes.”

While the question has been argued from battlefields to boardrooms for generations, Yammarino isn’t much interested in engaging in chicken-or-egg debates about the origins of leadership.

All of us, he says, seem to be naturally endowed with some leadership skills though we’re not all created equal. But unlike a person’s I.Q., leadership skills can be improved with training and practice.

“It’s true that all leaders are born. It’s also true that every leader is made,” Yammarino said. “No matter where someone starts out in their life, they can almost always move further along the leadership continuum.”

That’s cause for gratitude, according to Yammarino. “Otherwise we would have to identify all our leaders early on and put them in the right slots or all of society would be lost.”

Maximizing the analysis of leadership across its myriad levels and exploring what he has begun to see as the crucible of leadership dynamics — individual relationships between leaders and the led — has kept Yammarino busy as a researcher for more than 20 years now. The latest sign of his success was his recognition this year as a recipient of the University Award for Excellence in Research.

Though he recognizes that some people might perceive his discipline as a “touchy-feely,” humanistic sort of undertaking, Yammarino isn’t put off by such commentary.

“While it has that humanistic, maybe even touchy-feely side, we’re all human beings and that’s what’s involved here. Human interactions,” he says. “But when we get into the scholarly, rigorous side, we have to follow the same canons of science as any other discipline.

“Studying leadership is just like studying chemistry or physics. You’re studying it using the scientific method. You go through the same rigorous procedures and protocols. You have to develop accurate and precise measures that are valid and reliable. And you have to use the latest analytic tools to test your ideas.” As it turns out, researchers across any number of disciplines have Yammarino to thank, at least in part, for the availability of one such analytic tool. Working with Fred Dansereau, a professor of organization and human resources at SUNY Buffalo, Yammarino was instrumental in the development of a unique statistical tool called Within and Between Analysis, or WABA for short.

As its name suggests, WABA allows researchers to perform multilevel analyses. In analyzing leadership variables, for instance, WABA not only allows statistical analysis of individuals, dyads, groups and organizations, but also gives researchers a handle on variables that may operate at more than one level at the same time.

“It’s possible you could be a very high performing individual, on a terrible team, in a great department, in a so-so organization,” Yammarino said. WABA would help a researcher tease those variables apart as well as to explore them more closely in context. Similarly, certain leadership approaches might work best depending on variables at any of the levels, making WABA an important tool for analyzing leadership strategies as well.

Yammarino says the most surprising thing he has learned from two decades of leadership research tends to fly in the face of some conventional wisdom. His research suggests that the taproot of leadership is not about throngs or masses, countries or companies, teams or task forces. Leadership, first and foremost, he says, is about one-on-one relationships.

“These dyadic relationships literally build and destroy the larger units and organizations,” he said. Termed dyadic because they represent such intuitive pairs or dyads as mother and child, husband and wife, or leader and follower, these relationships are at the heart of all human relations across all cultures.

“If you think about human beings, our most powerful connections are dyadic connections,” Yammarino said. “I mean if you think about best friends, spouses, parent and child — if those bonds are broken through someone moving, or by death or divorce, these are the most traumatic times of our lives,” he said. “Even in collectivistic cultures, where the family is the most important unit, where there is no emphasis on the individual, these individual dyadic bonds are still the basic building block. The magnitude of their impact is eye opening.”

Yammarino’s research suggests that the connection between a supervisor and subordinate in an organization, or a leader or a follower in a social movement, is essentially as dynamic and powerful as other social and familial and dyadic relationships. “It takes time for these attachments to form and strengthen, but once they’re there, they are difficult to break…and if they do break, the break is devastating,” Yammarino said.

A growing body of anecdotal evidence involving workplace violence seems to support the empirical evidence that is Yammarino’s stock and trade. But what exactly is leadership? At its best, Yammarino says, it is a one-to-one process where the leader’s only job is to enhance the self-worth, the development and the success of the followers.

“What you get a kick out of, what you need to get out of your workplace, what you need to challenge you, what you need to be successful — all of this might be very different from the person next to you,” Yammarino said. “A leader’s job is to know you well enough to identify that and to make those matches happen. If a leader works that right, people get personal gains, but the larger organization also benefits.”

Another thing Yammarino is very sure of, he said, is that the leadership style of the person at the top of an organization — the style that person displays in interactions with their immediate team — will have a cascading effect throughout the organization.

“If the original style is a positive form of leadership, you have very successful organizations. The data show that over and over again,” he said. “I’m convinced, in fact, that if you take two identical situations: the same number of people making the same product or delivering the same service, you resource them the same, supply them the same, give them all the same equipment or tools, and you put a good leader in one and a poor leader in the other, at the end of a five-year window, the good leader’s organization will be successful and the other one will be filing for bankruptcy.”

Leadership studies are important because leadership itself is crucial in an increasingly complex world, Yammarino said.

“As we saw after September 11, leadership can overcome a lot of adversity, problems and crisis. One of the positive things about a time of crisis is that it often gives rise to great leadership, which can create opportunities where none existed before,” Yammarino said. “Frankly, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be studying.”

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