Leaders – maybe it’s your habits that set you apart?

What makes leaders different from the rest?

This is a question that has tickled the minds of the curious for a very long time. I have heard lots of explanations, read many books, studied several ‘models’ and ‘theories’, listened to many professors and guru’s wax lyrical on the topic.

The inevitable conclusion is that the answer to this question has to be considered at best a ‘work in progress’.

What ‘type’ of leader are you?

This is a fiendishly difficult question to answer. Most of the leadership models I have read about attempt to categorise human beings. Whilst helpful, as it creates a syntax for communication on the topic, experience has taught me that we humans are messy animals when it comes to being put into categories.

Our behaviours vary a lot and are clearly situational dependent. Any attempt to simplify the complex web of interactions that result in actual behaviour at any point in time is pretty impossible to predict. This is one of the many reasons why artificial intelligence has a long way to go to get even close to the human minds ability to react productively to the variables it is presented with in any moment in time.

The latest thinking from evolutionary biologists connect leadership traits with deeper human drives and motivations. Its proponents argue that there are 2 styles of leadership ‘Dominance’ and ’Prestige’.

A ‘Prestige’ leader influences people through their superior personal attributes, such as knowledge, wisdom and vision. They use their charisma and rhetoric to win over followers.

In contrast a ‘Dominant’ leader exert influence by demanding support, instilling fear in would be dissenters and threatening sanctions for anyone who fails to fall in line.

As with many academic approaches the biologists’ thesis is backed up with case studies drawn from across the animal kingdom. However, even they concede that this theory isn’t always totally clear. Many leaders can and do demonstrate both traits, often at the same time, to exert an influence on their followers.

Habits & Rituals give some insight

Maybe we are asking the wrong question? Instead of trying to understand leaders using attributes of personality, maybe we should look at their behaviours and habits. Perhaps this narrows the field of unknown variables?

Again, many have tried this path to wisdom. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was a best seller for many years. His colleague, Harvard Business Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has also written and spoken widely on the topic, listing what she considers are the 6 ‘Up’s’ of leadership:

  1. Show Up – Be present when leadership is required. Leaders turn up and put themselves out there when the need arises. This takes courage as anyone trying to lead will invariably invoke some criticism.
  2. Speak Up –Leaders have something to say, they can frame issues and challenges in a new way. They can name the problem, get things sorted and suggest actions as well as encourage others to move and shift perspectives.
  3. Look Up –Leaders are driven by a higher purpose, can see a bigger vision and have values that define clearly what they stand for. Their ability to ‘Zoom Out’, think longer term and consistently remind others where we are heading sets them apart.
  4. Team Up – Good leaders’ co-curate outcomes with others, they know how to invest in relationships and create partnerships that work. They recognise that to go fast you can go alone but to go far you need to go together.
  5. Never Give Up – Everything looks like a failure when you are in the middle of it. Persistence and perseverance are the two attributes that are the hallmark of great leaders. I was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s ability to step out of his 27 year interruption in prison to lead South Africa without any thought of revenge or malice aforethought.
  6. Lift Others Up – Great leaders share success with others yet take the blame on themselves. Their ability to make others feel good about what they have achieved sustains the momentum needed for followers to keep on following.

These insights all contribute to the wealth of knowledge and are useful in helping guide the path future leaders can follow.

Leadership, in my humble opinion, is a contact sport.

Whilst we can stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from their experience, we do still have to find our own way to lead. A way that works for us given our unique combination of attributes, habits, knowledge and skills.

What over 30 years of leadership coaching and mentoring has taught me is that individuals are unique and any attempt to create a unifying theory of leadership is still a long way off.

This should not dampen our enthusiasm to continue to be curious, far from it. I for one remain curious and am fascinated by any insights into what makes leaders succeed.

Please share any thoughts or insights you may have to offer and if you want to start a conversation to explore how your leadership traits are working for you then contact me. I can guarantee it will be a fascinating discussion.