4 counterintuitive leadership traits

“The difference between a leader and a dreamer is who gets followed.” I can’t attribute that quote to anyone in particular, maybe it was a fortune cookie. It’s also possible to substitute “tyrant” for “dreamer” and create another set of leadership lessons.

Segway Guy
Not being followed.

Much of what has been written about leadership styles emphasizes being visionary, creative, decisive, and fearless. My sense is that too much of these traits undermine the trust of the team you lead and erode your credibility. I’m not trying to write the next revolution in leadership theory (heroic, post-heroic, servant, virtual, 21st century — all taken) or even to suggest that the points below are academically complete. But they line up with my experiences in life so far, and they work. What do you think?

  1. Don’t try to right, just be clear. How often do you make a point of having the last word? If you want to build a team who points out risks in your plans and builds solutions collaboratively, you need to give them airtime without insecurity. Thanks to Ping Fu (what a name!) for that lesson in Build Magazine.
  2. Show your vulnerability to build a reputation for strength. It can be very humbling during a tough period to know that your role model has experienced similar setbacks and grown from them. Rather than acting invincible, be open about your weaknesses, failures, and fears to show that you, too, are human. Surprisingly, your team might regard you as a stronger character because of those revelations.
  3. Don’t try to be dynamic if you can’t first be consistent. Do you set sweeping strategic goals or drill down to every minute detail? Do you codify tribal knowledge into efficient process flows or do you rearrange the furniture to spark creative innovation? Do you sway with the ups and downs of individual relationships or lock a laser beam on the goal? Yes, we should all develop multiple leadership styles to be more successful in a wider range of situations and with diverse teams. But trust is a prerequisite, and consistency builds trust. To clarify your current strengths, ask for some feedback or try a more scientific assessment such as Tom Rath’s.
  4. At some point, everyone just wants to be told what to do (even if that is just so they can argue with you). The questioning/Socratic method of coaching is great for learning and building ownership. Don’t forget the root of the word “executive:” you’ve got to pull the trigger at some point. Those on your team looking for directions to follow will do so readily; those looking to challenge your authority will enjoy getting another chance!

Image: http://www.segway.com


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