Rethinking Leadership with Broader Mindsets
Focusing Narrowly on Traits, Micro-Tactics, and Relationships Isn't Enough
Posted May 17, 2019
Our leadership discourse is full of debilitating misconceptions. As examples, I’ve often heard from students and practicing managers that “leader = boss” and “I don't (or "S/he doesn’t) have what it takes to be a leader.” Such myths are self-defeating for individuals, teams, and institutions.
The first misconception, the boss = leader mentality, ignores the fact that leadership is not a position, but a wide variety of productive actions that anyone anywhere-- who is willing-- can exhibit. The second, believing that “what it takes” to be a leader means having certain traits—for example, charisma, extraversion, grit, or empathy—can convince people that it’s pointless to try to lead because leadership isn't in their DNA.
More accurately, leadership depends on how people think and behave—and we all can make conscious choices about what we do. Understanding this can help people and organizations 1) break out of self-limiting mindsets, and 2) jumpstart the growth and learning mindsets that enhance leader development.
To help break out of narrow confines and apply broader, higher-leverage mindsets, here are three mistakes common to our leadership discourse, along with big-picture upgrades.
Mistake #1: Overemphasizing Personality Traits
It’s true that some personality traits correlate with leadership effectiveness. But a short list of sometimes-helpful attributes can never tell a complete leadership story.
“Charisma” is a great example. We are drawn to people with charisma, and leaders often wish they had more of it. However, it’s substance—that is, relevant knowledge, strategic thinking, effective decision making—that more concretely builds trust and respect over time, not a particular style. Emphasizing style over substance is a recipe for eventual failure.
Moreover, charisma seems to be a very rare blessing; it's common to envy those chosen few who seemingly were born with high-charisma genes. But in fact, charisma comes from behaving in ways that anyone can display: having a compelling vision (which emerges through thoughtful effort, not genetic endowment), communicating it effectively, and conveying enthusiasm for the pursuit. It also comes from talking about success more than dwelling on failure, showing confidence in the team, attending to people as individuals, being a proactive change agent, and doing unique, impactful things that people talk about. All of these are learnable, upon setting one's mind to doing so.
You don’t need to be born with charisma or extraversion or any other particular trait. Nor should you limit your personal and professional development by thinking that you don't have what it takes. You can learn what behaviors you should display when leading, adopt them as personal goals, practice and experiment with them, and add them to your continually-growing leadership repertoire.
Mistake #2: Prioritizing Micro-tactics over Strategic Mindsets
Many (and perhaps most) articles about leadership focus narrowly on one topic. They highlight single most-important keys, and specific steps leaders should take (e.g., how to delegate work, give feedback, or strengthen emotional intelligence). This is not entirely bad, because leaders have to do so much and good tactical advice helps. When faced with a particular leadership challenge, and we can search “How to X” to find suggested step-by-step micro-tactics.
Unfortunately, relatively missing are the big-picture mindsets that best ingrain the most vital types of leader actions. For example, perhaps the broadest and most essential categories of leader behaviors are 1) task-focused (ensuring that the work done, and done well), 2) people-focused (showing personal consideration and helping people grow and thrive), and 3) decision making, including how much input you seek and allow from others (ranging from autocratic to democratic with many variations in between).
So, pay proper attention to both the people and the work (most managers pay more attention to one than the other; what's your tendency?). Also, think hard about the processes you use to make decisions. Effective leaders develop and use a wide variety of methods; they sometimes make decisions autocratically and other times they devote extra time and effort to more participative approaches, depending on the nature of the problem, people, and circumstances.
Want to know the micro-tactics that tell you when to be autocratic vs. democratic, and what in-between options to consider? All you have to do is look it up.
Mistake #3: Highlighting Relationships while Neglecting Impact
By definition, leadership is an interpersonal endeavor, so relationships surely matter.
Bad relationships are usually two-way streets, with both parties contributing. Bosses’ contributions can include abusive actions stemming in part from what’s called personality's “dark triad”: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. At a minimum, people in leadership positions should avoid such tendencies and the toxic relationships that can result.
On the positive side, new research identifies a “light triad” of mindsets that can powerfully enrich better-known relationship-enhancers like empathy and servant leadership. This triad entails believing in people’s inherent goodness (faith in humanity), valuing the dignity and worth of every individual (humanism), and treating people as ends in themselves rather than means to achieve other purposes (Kantianism). If you enact these broad perspectives, you’ll connect with others and form meaningful, lasting relationships.
However, good relationships alone do not equate to good leadership. It’s imperative that leaders, with and through other people, deliver results.
Unfortunately, energetically pursuing this goal can drive narrow, short-term productivity at significant long-term cost (exhaustion, anger, accidents, and performance breakdowns). So, leaders should strive for overall impact, which implies a greater breadth of sustained positive outcomes. Impact means solving and preventing problems, creating and capturing opportunities, generating stronger individual, team, and organizational performance, and having better-off direct reports and other stakeholders.
Such is the leadership imperative in every sector, including political, societal, and global impact.
In sum, our most common leadership discussions highlight specific traits, micro-tactics, and personal relationships. These all are useful themes. But for long-term leader success, it’s the big picture—including broad mindsets and strategically-chosen behaviors over time—that matters most.