The Power of Prime

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Leader-as-Person: Who You Are Is How You Lead

You are not capable of leading in ways that conflict with who you are.

In my first post in this series on leadership in the corporate world, I introduced you to the notion that there are roles that leaders must fulfill to be successful: person, performer, team builder, decision maker, and change agent. This post will explore what I believe lies at the heart of leadership: leader-as-person, who you are is how you lead.

As I alluded to in my first post, I take a contrarian view of leadership: I don’t believe in leadership styles. Despite the many books written about leadership styles, I would argue that we are not capable of leading in ways that conflict with who we are. In other words, we can’t be someone we are not.

Certainly, it is possible to expand the range of your leadership capabilities around the anchor of who you are; a great leader is always looking for ways to improve their leadership skills. For example, if you are an intense and emotional leader, you can learn to moderate your emotional reactions during a crisis to some degree. At the same time, it’s not likely you will ever be a Zen-type leader.

Within notion of leader-as-person, the key for you is to fully understand who you are and, given who you are, maximize your effectiveness as a leader. With this information, you can then identify the strengths and weaknesses you have as a leader and can work to build your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses, thus allowing who you are to emerge as a more effective leader.

Leader-as-person is so vital because it is the foundation of everything you do as a leader. It starts with a fundamental question: “How can I lead from a position of respect, trust, and loyalty?” The answer to this question, and the basis for gaining the respect, trust, and loyalty of your team, is not in how you lead, but rather in the kind of person you are and the relationships you build with your team. For example, are you likable, calm, and supportive? Or are you angry, critical, and demanding? Or someone else entirely. Understanding who you are will help you figure out how you can best lead.

Who are You?

The answer to this question has many layers and influences. Who you are begins with a set of inborn attributes. Research has demonstrated a number of characteristics that we are born with. Temperamental factors that are most relevant to corporate leaders include:

  • Energy: What your natural energy level is. Are you relaxed or full of energy?
  • Initial reaction: How you respond to new people and situations. Do you tend to dive in or observe first?
  • Adaptability: How readily you adapt to change. Do you adjust easily or are you uncomfortable with and resistant to change?
  • Mood: How generally happy or unhappy you are. Do you tend to view at yourself, others, and situations positively or negatively?
  • Emotionality: How you respond to emotional situations. Do you react with strong emotions, either positive or negative, or are you more stoic?

Innate personality traits also shape who you are and how you lead. Some of the most relevant personality characteristics for corporate leadership include:

  • Openness to experience: your receptivity to new and different people and situations. Are you creative, self-aware, prefer variety, and curious or are you prone to routine, have few interests, and tend to think and behave in predictable ways?
  • Conscientiousness: How deliberate and careful you are. Are you detailed oriented, thorough, and organized or are you low-key, less focused and goal directed, and more relationship oriented?
  • Sociability: How introverted or extraverted you are. Are you outgoing and social or are you more reserved and prefer being alone or one-on-one with people?
  • Rigidity: How inflexible or flexible you are. Are you stubborn and resistant to others’ views or are you amenable and receptive to others?
  • Impulsivity: How reactive you are to people and situations. Do you often act spontaneously without deliberate thinking or are you measured and methodical?

Though I have focused on genetic contributors to who are you so far, don’t think that who you are is solely based on your genetic predispositions. To the contrary, though nature plays a significant role in who you are, nurture also have a big impact.

The values you adopt from your upbringing and life experiences are powerful influences on who you are because your values determine the choices you make, priorities you set in your life, and where and how you commit your time and energy. Examples include integrity, hard work, fairness, curiosity, team work, diligence, ethics, passion, the list goes on and on.

The attitudes and beliefs you hold about yourself, others, and the world also contribute to who you are. An attitude is your evaluation of someone or something, that is, is your view positive or negative? Examples of an attitude include how you view your team’s capabilities, the quality of the services or products you offer, and how effectively you provide value to your customers. Beliefs involve what you hold to be true. For example, do you believe in collaborative or competitive culture in your company or do you believe in the bottom line or corporate responsibility? Attitudes and beliefs shape how you perceive, interpret, decide, and act on all aspects of your leadership.

Finally, your knowledge and skill sets impact who you are and how you lead. Your leadership will be guided by whatever you consider to be your strengths in these areas and you will likely either avoid, downplay, or delegate leadership in knowledge and skill set areas in which you don’t believe yourself as capable. For example, if you have a strong finance background, your leadership will express that knowledge and skill sets. Conversely, if you don’t believe you have very good emotional capabilities, you may not be comfortable attempting to lead your team through inspiration.

What Makes You Tick?

My question (and challenge) to you is: How well do you know who you are? The better you know yourself, including the good, the bad, and even the ugly, the better leader you will be. As I indicate in my Prime Business Pyramid (scroll down to Module 2), self-knowledge is the well spring from which every aspect of your leadership emerges. I define self-knowledge as” “a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of self that affect your leadership and team functioning and performance.”

When you maximize your self-knowledge, several benefits to your leadership accrue:

  • You understand and can then build on your strengths and alleviate areas in need of improvement;
  • You identify obstacles that interfere with maximizing your leadership;
  • Self-knowledge acts as the catalyst for growth and change;
  • You can develop who you are and how you lead in an organized and systematic way;
  • The more you know yourself, the more you can deliberately choose how you want to lead.

How Do You Gain Self-knowledge?

There is no single “road to Rome” when it comes to self-knowledge. There are many ways for you to gain understanding into what makes you tick. You should choose the road that you are most comfortable with and that you believe will offer you the most breadth and depth in your explorations of who you are and how you lead. Some of the most common and effective include:

  • Be mindful: Observe yourself in your various roles as a leader and evaluate your effectiveness;
  • Ponder your existence: Sit down and consciously examine different aspects of who you are (using the information above) and how who you are influences how you lead;
  • Ask for feedback: Seek out feedback from people you trust about how they see you and your leadership;
  • Reading: There are many resources available to you, including books, articles, web sites, and blogs, that can help open your eyes to who you are and how you lead;
  • Workshops: You can participate workshops led by trained professionals that can enable you to gain new insights about yourself and your leadership;
  • Psychological and leadership assessment: There are many formal assessment tools (many on line) that you can self-administer that can tell you more about who you are and how you lead;
  • Coaching or counseling: Work one-on-one with a trained professional to explore more deeply who you are and how you lead.

An Exercise in Self-knowledge

I want to conclude this post with an exercise that you can use to begin the process of figuring out how who you are and how you lead. In each of the areas I have discussed (temperament, personality, values, attitudes and beliefs, knowledge and skill sets), conduct a self-assessment of who you are and your strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Then, connect these new insights about yourself with how the particular attributes impact your leadership, positively or negatively.

When you have a reasonably clear “map” of who you are and how it influences your leadership, choose no more than three areas to focus on and lay out a plan for better expressing who you are in how you lead.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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