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

The Myth of Unintended Consequences

A quote that rings in my ears from time to time, especially when I get caught out in the rain, is: “There is no such thing as bad weather — only a poor choice of clothes.” I’m not certain where I heard it first but I’m going to attribute it to my colleague Taylor’s mother.

In business, politics, or our personal lives we often hear much hand-wringing and excuse-making about unintended consequences. Today I offer you a more pragmatic view: “There are no such things as unintended consequences — only a poor choice of solutions.” After looking at a couple examples, I’ll suggest how you can help your team avoid unintended consequences by:

  • developing a more robust understanding of the problem and the system that governs whether the problem occurs
  • executing effective trial solutions, and then leading change effectively at full-scale

Recently, a few examples of unintended consequences in the news have reminded me of other historical examples. Copenhagen is trying to get more of its residents to commute using bicycles. At the same time, concerned advocacy groups also started promoting bicycle safety through helmet use. What happened? Ridership dropped. Let’s look quickly at a few more examples for reference:

As leaders, we all understand that the future is uncertain and “the ideal time to make a decision is never” (see diagram).

The ideal time to make a decision is … never. Increase your certainty in decision making by steepening your team’s learning curve with a structured approach.

Over time, we gain more and more information about the system and can be more certain. The slope of this curve depends on the method we use to understand the system — and sadly many teams rely on nothing more than brainstorming. For more about using a structured approach to understand a system quickly, read my previous post challenging the effectiveness of “5 Whys.”

When it comes trialing solutions and then managing change, there are countless “proven models” to follow. Two resources I can recommend are:

  1. John Kotter’s Leading Change — straightforward and timeless
  2. The Build Network has concise, informative articles targeting senior leaders in rapidly growing business. One example is about mapping a business model before you improve it.

Do you believe in unintended consequences? have you busted the myth? Leave a comment!