Robert Lord

He played a key role in developing the University of Akron’s graduate industrial/organizational psychology program ranked in the top 10 in the US in 2009 by U.S. News & World Report.

We are currently working on curating this profile page. In the meantime, please see Robert Lord’s full oral history.

Born or Made?

“[B]oth is the obvious answer... I mean, you need to be able to have a certain set of skills and be able to manage what you’re doing so that you can then focus on understanding the way other people are reacting to you, what their needs are, and how you can help them do what they need to do.”

Description of the video:

Scarpino: Since 1978, especially in the past several decades, the schools and programs of leadership have absolutely proliferated, and so has the literature on leadership and leadership studies. The question that I have is: Given the proliferation of leadership studies and literature, have we in the present developed standards for assessing past, present, and potential leaders? In other words, have we developed the ability to do what Burns said we didn’t, couldn’t do in 1978?

Lord: Oh, well, sure. Some organizations have. The military does a really good job at that, and they have for a number of years of both assessing and training. Organizations do that. They have a lot of leadership development activities. First of all, to get back to the selection point that I talked about, there are two ways you can approach finding people that have the skills to do a job. One is you can select certain people that have those skills, and the other is you can train them. While selection may be a problem, there is a phenomenal industry on leadership training. The argument there is really that you can develop skills in people.

Scarpino: Does leadership training work? Can you really train somebody to be a leader? I think for a minute that – I’ll give you a chance to think. With all my heart, I could want to slam dunk a basketball, and I could never do it because I’m not tall enough, I don’t have the jumping ability. There is no one who could train me to do that. I could watch movies; I could fantasize; but I could never do it. Is there any element of leadership that is like that, or can we actually train people to be leaders? Are they born or made?

Lord: I think they’re, well, both is the obvious answer. There is a lot of literature on identical twins and evolutionary basis for leadership that suggests that there are some inherited characteristics that predispose you towards being successful leaders. Training is a funny term, and most people who have been in the field for a while look at it more as experience. Leadership training in the long run is often setting up a series of situations where people can gain experience as leaders. That’s why a lot of leadership training programs are multiweek programs. They might run one, or two, or three semesters. We’re getting studies that look at the time course or trajectory of learning leadership skills. The problem with that is that outcomes of training are often associated with the way people are perceived by others and sometimes self-perceptions. What you tend to see is that as somebody gets into a leadership training program, their leadership ratings go down. I think it’s like a shift in standards. And then they come up. But what is central to the process is that people seem to develop an identity of themselves as being a potential leader, and then around that identity, they organize various kinds of skills so that, as someone is experienced and sees himself as a leader, they can do many things automatically. In the article that I mentioned with Rosalie Hall, what we argue is that you go through novice to intermediate to expert stages in terms of developing skills. To just flush that out a bit, a novice might be concerned with surface structures in terms of behaving as a leader, so they’re very focused on what they’re doing and how that’s being evaluated by other people. But as they learn ways to behave, then they have more capacity that’s free to self-monitor, to see how other people are reacting, and to think what other people’s needs are. So they become less self-centered and more other-centered, and then as they become experts, they have more principled knowledge and they are able to think in terms of bigger systems. I was talking to a colonel in the military, and I’ve forgotten his name, but he was telling me that it really wasn’t until 15 or 20 years into his career as a military officer that he really understood how a battalion functioned.

Scarpino: The military is almost a case study of what you were just saying though.

Lord: Yeah. So, I mean, you need to be able to have a certain set of skills and be able to manage what you’re doing so that you can then focus on understanding the way other people are reacting to you, what their needs are, and how you can help them do what they need to do. Then you have to be able to understand how they do it within the particular system because sometimes it’s not the person; sometimes it’s the system that has to be changed to allow the person to do what they are capable of doing.

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