Leadership Development Myths – Part 3

Sep 5, 2018

Myth #3: Leadership Is About Traits
The leadership industry is obsessed with defining the traits of leaders. What are the elements of personality, character, or style that mark the successful leader?

Some hold up the vague example of celebrity CEO’s, like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, and simply suggest aspiring leaders emulate them. That’s not particularly helpful for the average leader who isn’t the idiosyncratic founder and CEO of a giant tech company. Others attempt to offer more specific breakdowns. AMA has this list of “traits”. CCL calls some of theirs “characteristics”. Here’s an HBR article that refers to “attributes”. People just can’t seem to stop making lists of all the things they think leaders should be.

In fact, the allure of traits is so strong that many lists which are supposed to define skills, are in fact full of traits like humility, honesty, or versatility. (e.g. this Forbes list) And before anybody goes feeling superior about Forbes, just take a look at your own organization’s competency model. I’ll bet a big chunk of what’s on there are really traits and not actually competencies. Believe me; I’ve seen about a hundred of them.

It’s an understandable urge.

If effective leaders all looked and smelled the same, it would be easy to identify them. Hiring and succession decisions would be so much simpler. But, we know it isn’t that way. We’ve all seen leaders with different mixes of the same characteristics and different levels of success. Some people are very “authentic” but can’t lead their way out of a paper bag. Some people are very effective but could hardly be described as “humble” never mind “fiercely” so. There is just no single list of traits that is predictive all the time.

Recognizing that fact, some parts of the leadership industry respond with contingent systems. They look at the combination of a particular leader’s traits and a particular follower’s traits. Or, they look at the demands of the situation and the traits of the leader. Improving the exercise of leadership then amounts to flexing our behavior based on the interactions of traits in a group. Selection hinges on matching the traits of the leader to the traits demanded by the situation.

That would make sense, if it weren’t impossible.

Even simple four-part systems, like MBTI, yield hundreds of potential combinations any time two people interact. Nobody can actually remember and instantaneously change their behavior based on hundreds of permutations. Not to mention what happens if there are more than two people in the room… The real nail on the coffin is the central claim of assessment-based models. If your instrument is truly valid and reliable, then your subjects don’t have much shot at changing anyway.

And while there’s a certain logic to, say, bringing in a turnaround specialist as CEO, that kind of logic also breaks down pretty quickly for most roles in the organization. In today’s complex and fast-moving organizations, we expect leaders to balance a variety of responsibilities. The typical leader has to function in a broad set of situations with different characteristics – at the same time. It’s pretty impractical to swap them out every time something changes about the context.

The truth is, focusing on traits isn’t a productive path: 1. You can never find the right list or set of definitions. And B. If they truly are traits, in the way that the authors of these models claim, then you’re pretty much out of luck.

A better answer is to focus on what leaders do. But what is that anyway?

I spent a lot of time in the B-School world and have seen umpteen different takes on that question.

Many answers contrast what leaders do with what they don’t do. For example, John Kotter famously suggested that leadership is about dealing with change while management is about dealing with complexity. A number of scholars pit transactional leadership against transformational leadership. Ron Heifetz talks about technical vs adaptive work. There are some great insights in each of those framings, but it gets tricky because we generally expect people in our organizations to do both. No matter how many times Ron says it, most people have a hard time distinguishing between the activity of leadership and the roles that get people labelled as “leaders” in the organization.

Other scholars get around the question by focusing on the leader’s role in establishing a strategic vision and creating organizational conditions for followers to succeed. Still others emphasize the leader’s role in modeling the desired culture of the company and role modelling the behavior for others to follow. That still leaves the questions of what conditions, what culture, and what behaviors?

In an effort to help, academics (some of whom I greatly admire) have marched ever further into the quagmire. Inevitably, they end up with phrases like defining and operationalizing meaningful action in organizations, or gripping flashes of prose like, “leadership occurs when one group member modifies the motivation or competencies of others in the group”. Exactly what that all means isn’t especially clear to people who aren’t hopeless OD nerds like me.

In other ostensible efforts to help, social media and the popular press offer their share of deep-sounding, but ultimately meaningless clichés. For example, “You’re not a leader until you’ve produced another leader who can produce another leader” sounds good at first. That is until you realize it really means nobody is a leader because everyone in that chain is perpetually waiting on all the layers below. It reminds me of Aristotle, “Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives?”

Our approach is to skip trying to count the angels on the head of the pin

Over the past year, I’ve been working with my team to make a particular set of leadership ideas and tools more accessible to real people. These people are professionals working at multiple levels in real organizations. They are frontline managers and senior executives. They work in industries like pharma, technology, and professional services. The serve in functions like finance, sales, marketing, or R&D. They come to us with a lot of experience and expertise in their heads and a lot of big challenges in their plates.

We work with them on things like having better coaching relationships with their employees, navigating complex business problems, or functioning as a healthy senior team. In that process, they don’t need someone to tell them that they should be simultaneously visionary and yet laser-focused on the details. They don’t need a battery of assessments to tell them where they rank on a scale defining some kind of perfect leader who can never exist. They have important stuff to do and they need help to do it more effectively. So, our answer to what leaders really do is simple:

Leaders Engage

At the end of the day, people have the same fundamental drives. We all try to avoid risk,
conflict and uncertainty. We all try to get what we want by controlling outcomes, processes,
and perceptions. These are our automatic responses to most situations, and their pull is really strong:

  • There’s a logic to them
  • There’s an emotional payoff
  • And they even work sometimes

Unfortunately, they also let us down – in big ways. We get trapped in a mode that:

  • Drives bad habits that backfire on us
  • Results in bigger problems down the road
  • And prevents us from taking on what really matters

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know there’s a lot of organizational theater that goes on simply to allow those in leadership roles to avoid the unpleasant truths and hard work that should be theirs to face. There’s also a tremendous amount of time and energy wasted maintaining the illusion that everything is under control. Metrics that don’t really inform any decisions. Managing to detailed plans and forecasts that everyone knows were based on nothing more than wishful thinking. That’s not real leadership. That the Avoid & Control Trap. Individual leaders get caught in it and whole organizations can get caught in it.

Real leaders engage people in the real issues that matter, and they do it across the organization.

That requires actively pulling themselves and others out of the Avoid & Control trap. If we’re addressing the real problems the organization is facing, we have to deal with some level of risk and uncertainty. If we’re trying to innovate and seize new opportunities, then all the processes and systems can’t have been worked out.

It’s hard work pushing ourselves, and others, through discomfort to work together on the important stuff, but it’s worth it. After all, if you’re not engaging people and the real issues that matter to the organization, that can’t really be leadership, no matter how authentic, agile, or humble you may be while you do it.

Recognizing and acknowledging the very real and very human dynamics getting in the way of doing that is a great first step. Exploring what to do it about next, is where the fun really begins.

What do you think?