February 29, 2016

Traits of a Leader: Don’t Lead Half-Dressed

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We live in an either/or world. It’s a world of extremes. You are told that you can either be a people person or a task-driven person. You can either be a great visionary or a great administrator; either a compassionate leader or a smart one. In the management world the concept of “leading from your strengths” has been fully rooted into our thinking and behavior.  

I believe that concept is short sighted, inadequate, and not sustainable.

There was a time when leaders didn’t solely focus on what they were good at; they focused on being a complete mature leader. Holistic leadership, you might call it. If they found a deficiency, they worked on it.

The Problem

Ignoring holistic leadership means believing one of two lies:

Lie 1 – I only need to do one thing really well.

This is the danger behind strengths-based leadership. Many of us have bought the self-help seminar pitch that expertise in one area is the secret to success. We’ve homed in on our strengths, and then we’ve doubled down, investing more time, training, and effort to become the best we can be at that one thing. The only problem is that you eventually discover what you can’t do will be your downfall. If you really want to lead, it simply won’t work to be incompetent in a single core area. A leader who doesn’t understand finance won’t last, no matter how well he can sell and market. A leader who has exceptional people skills (RQ, EQ) will only be given so many passes for not executing or delivering on promises.

As a professor of mine used to say, “A strong gift can take you where the absence of other gifts cannot keep you.”

Lie 2 – I have to do it all really well.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we can’t be omni-competent. We simply can’t be great at everything. None of us will ever know all, be all, and able to do all. David Allen wrote, “You can do anything but you can’t do everything.”

We agree with this in theory, but in practice, we feel the pressure from society to do it all. So we start juggling—one week, we focus on pivoting quickly, and the next week it’s on to strategic planning for the future and sticking to it. Like comedic juggler Michael Davis, however, we end up with egg on our face.

Half-Competent Means Fully Exposed

So what’s the solution? We need to disbelieve both lies. We need to accept that we can’t do it all but not allow ourselves to ignore our weaknesses. We need to get out of an either/or mindset and move into the power of and.

This January Harvard Business article identifies five dangers of strengths-based coaching, including:

  • There’s no scientific research that it works
  • Overused strengths become toxic
  • It doesn’t ignore the real problem workplaces face

Over the years I have compiled a list of capabilities required to lead at the top, in the middle, or on your way up from the bottom of any healthy organization. I have identified seven sets of qualities that are often pitted against each other as if you must choose one over the other.

  1. Being Results Driven AND People Focused
  2. Doing Friday’s Payroll AND Inventing the Future
  3. Having Heart AND Using Your Head
  4. Thinking Corporately AND Working Functionally
  5. Leading Others AND Managing Yourself
  6. Feeling Confident AND Being Humble
  7. Embracing Team AND Performing Alone

No matter your role—CEO, VP, middle manager, summer intern aspiring to leadership while he grabs the coffee, or anywhere in between—these seven quality sets apply to you. You may say, “I’m not in charge of any payroll!” but the principle of buckling down and getting things done and delivering on past promises still applies. You may see the category of “Leading Others” and think, No one reports to me, but the reality is that every time you have oversight of a project, you are stepping into a leadership role.

You could probably grab a pencil and circle which of these qualities comes most naturally to you. Which is your strength—having heart or using your head? Embracing team or performing alone?

But what if you switched that or to an and?

The most successful leaders work to develop capabilities on both sides of the street.  They are fully dressed. They are AND leaders, not OR leaders. Strengths-based leaders hit a glass ceiling but then they get exposed. They show up half-dressed. Aspiring do-it-alls are eventually found out because they can’t keep it up. They show up with pants dirty, shirt untucked, and shoes untied.

If you want to be noticed by your boss, work on the AND part of your job. If you want to add a layer of value on your personal and professional clout, get fully dressed.  

Your goal as a leader should be to grow and develop a complete wardrobe of capabilities. This closet includes skills, attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge. You will always need to relate to people; you can’t just sit in a lab and do research. You will always need to be empathetic and be smart. Just because you aren’t a compassionate leader now doesn’t mean you can’t learn to develop some qualities of tenderness and kindness.

This does NOT mean trying to be omni-competent. It means cultivating a collection of capabilities, regardless of your natural wiring and proclivity. Use your strengths but don’t ignore your weaknesses.

This, of course, is no easy task. It requires sustained effort and focus. This 2012 Inc. article suggests that learning to lead through your weaknesses usually requires setting aside time to think about how to tangibly exercise that muscle.

As Peter Drucker wrote a half century ago, “In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide variety of organizations—large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American and Japanese—I have not come across a single ‘natural’: an executive leader who was born effective. All the effective ones had to learn to be effective.”

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