A Leadership Personality

A Leadership Personality

I find personality trait tests misleading. I know they are used by companies in hiring decisions and I know that Big 5 Personality Traits have been shown to predict political party support, but I still feel that they are misapplied and misunderstood. Specifically, I think that the way we interpret them fails to take context into consideration, which may make them next to useless. Gerd Gigerenzer considers this lapse in our judgement when thinking about the way we discuss and evaluate leadership personalities.

 

In Risk Savvy he writes, “leadership lies in the match between person and environment, which is why there is no single personality that would be a successful leader at all historical times and for all problems to solve.” A military general might make a great leader on the battlefield, but they may not be a great leader in a public education setting. A surgeon leading a hospital during the times of the American Civil War might not make a good leader at Columbia University Medical Center today, and the leader who thrives at a prestigious New York City medical center might not make a great leader at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. Leadership is in many ways context dependent. The problems that a leader has to address may call for different approaches and solutions, which may be supported or sabotaged by particular personality types. Someone who is an outgoing socialite may be the right type of leader in New York City, but might be bored in Rural Nevada and may come across as overbearing to those who prefer a rural lifestyle. What Gigerenzer suggests may be the most important quality for a leader is not some form of leadership personality, but the right experiences and the right ability to apply particular rules of thumb and intuition to a given problem.

 

If the appropriate leadership personality is so context dependent, it may also be worth asking if our personality in general is context dependent. I have not studied personality and personality tests deeply enough to have any true evidence to back me up, but I would expect it to be. Dan Pink in When shows that we are the most productive and have the most positive mood about 4 hours after waking, and have the least amount of energy and worst mood around mid day (or 8 to 10 hours after we wake up). It seems to me that my performance on a personality test would be different if I was taking it at the peak of my day versus during the deepest trough. Also, I would expect my personality to manifest differently in an online multiple choice test relative to an unexpected car emergency, or during a game of cards with my old high school best friends. To say that I have one personality that shines through in all situations seems misleading, and to say that I have a particular level of any given personality trait that remains constant through the day and from experience to experience also seems misleading.

 

Gigerenzer’s quote above is about leadership and the idea that there is no single personality trait that applies to good leaders. I think it is reasonable to extend that assumption to personality generally, assuming that our personality is context dependent and being successful as individuals also involves rules of thumb based on experiences. What is important then is to develop and cultivate experiences and rules of thumb that can guide us toward success. Incorporating goals, feedback, and tools to help us recall successful approaches and strategies within a given context can help us become leaders and can help us succeed regardless of what a personality test tells us and regardless of the context we find ourselves in.
A Leader's Toolbox

A Leader’s Toolbox

In the book Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes the work of top executives within companies as being inherently intuitive. Executives and managers within high performing companies are constantly pressed for time. There are more decisions, more incoming items that need attention, and more things to work on than any executive or manager can adequately handle on their own. Consequentially, delegation is necessary, as is quick decision-making based on intuition. “Senior managers routinely need to make decisions or delegate decisions in an instant after brief consultation and under high uncertainty,” writes Gigerenzer. This combination of quick decision-making under uncertainty is where intuition comes to play, and the ability to navigate these situations is what truly comprises the leader’s toolbox.

 

Gigerenzer stresses that the intuitions developed by top managers and executives are not arbitrary. Successful managers and companies tend to develop similar tool boxes that help encourage trust and innovation. While many individual level decisions are intuitive, the structure of the leader’s toolbox often becomes visible and intentional. As an example, Gigerenzer highlights a line of thinking he uncovered when working on a previous book. He writes, hire well and let them do their jobs reflects a vision of an institution where quality control (hire well) goes together with a climate of trust (let them do their jobs) needed for cutting-edge innovation.”

 

In many companies and industries, the work to be done is incredibly complex, and a single individual cannot manage every decision. The structure of the decision-making process necessarily needs to be decentralized for the individual units of the team to work effectively and efficiently. Hiring talented individuals and providing them with the autonomy and tools necessary to be successful is the best approach to get the right work done well.

 

Gigerenzer continues, “Good leadership consists of a toolbox full of rules of thumb and the intuitive ability to quickly see which rule is appropriate in which context.”

 

A leader’s toolbox doesn’t consist of specific lists of what to do in certain situations or even specific skills that are easy to check off on a resume. A leader’s toolbox is built by experience in a diverse range of settings and intuitions about things as diverse as hiring, teamwork, and delegation. Because innovation is always uncertain and always includes risk, leaders must develop intuitive skills and be able to make quick and accurate judgements about how to best handle new challenges and obstacles. Intuition and gut-decisions are an essential part of leadership today, even if we don’t like to admit that we make important decisions on intuition.
Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming group overconfidence is hard, but in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers one partial remedy: a premortem. As opposed to a postmortem, and analysis of why a project failed, a premortem looks at why a program might fail before it has started.

 

Group communication is difficult. When the leader of a group is enthusiastic about an idea, it is hard to disagree with them. If you are a junior member of a team, it can be uncomfortable, and potentially even disadvantageous for you and your career to doubt the ideas that a senior leader is excited about. If you have concerns, it is not likely that you will bring them up, especially in a group meeting with other seemingly enthusiastic team members surrounding you.

 

Beyond the silencing of a member who has concerns but doesn’t want to speak up is another problem that contributes to overconfidence among teams: groupthink. Particularly among groups that lack diversity, groupthink can crush the planning stage of a project. When everyone has similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar styles of thinking, it is unlikely that anyone within the group will have a viewpoint or opinion that is significantly different than the prevailing wisdom of the rest. What seems like a good idea or the correct decision to one person probably feels like the correct idea or decision to everyone else – there is literally no one in the room who has any doubts or alternative perspectives.

 

Premortems help get beyond groupthink and the fear of speaking up against a powerful and enthusiastic leader. The idea is to brainstorm all the possible ways that a project might fail. It includes an element of creativity by asking everyone to imagine the project is finally finished, either successfully but well over budget, way late, after a very turbulent series of events, or the project was a complete failure and never reached its intended end point. People have to describe the issues that came up and why the project did not reach the rosy outcome everyone initially pictured. Imaging that these failures had taken place in real life gets people to step beyond groupthink and encourages highlighting roadblocks that particularly enthusiastic members overlook.

 

Because premortems are hypothetical, it gives people a chance to speak up about failure points and weaknesses in plans and ideas without appearing to criticize the person the idea came from. It creates a safe space for imagining barriers and obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve success. It reduces groupthink by encouraging a creative flow of ideas of failure points. As Kahneman writes, “The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.”

 

Overcoming group overconfidence is possible, but it needs the right systems and structures to happen. Groupthink and fear are likely to prevent people from bringing up real doubts and threats, but a premortem allows those concerns to be aired and seriously considered. It helps get people to look beyond the picture of success they intuitively connect with, and it helps prevent enthusiastic supporters from getting carried away with their overconfidence.

The Complement of Networked Governance

The last few weeks I have been writing about governance ideas presented in Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism. One idea I have brought up multiple times is the idea of new institutions at the local level formed from networks of public, private, and civic actors. Katz and Nowak argue that these networks are crucial for the development of plans and strategies to help cities grow, adapt, and thrive in a globalized economy. New institutions include structures and frameworks that bring together public, private, and civic leaders who have the ability to mobilize energy, capital, and people to actually get things done, rather than to just talk about doing things.

 

Katz and Nowak are clear, however, that these new network governance structures are not something they suggest as a replacement to traditional government structures and agencies. In their book they write, “In the end, however, networked governance is a complement to functioning government, not a substitution. As responsibilities shift downward in societies, capable local governments become a necessary component of problem solving and leadership.”

 

I previously wrote about the ways in which our denigration of government in some ways create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where talented and motivated people are afraid of the stigma of government work and chose to work in the private sector, leaving government with less capable and dynamic talent. A lot of rhetoric says that government is the problem and not a solution, but Katz and Nowak show that government has to be part of the solution.

 

City and local governments create the structures that can organize private and civic groups. They create the forums through which stakeholders can deliberate and discuss the problems that people in the region face. Agencies play a role in ensuring that projects and programs taken on with the support of private and civic groups follow legal precedent and sound administrative practices in an equitable manner. Without a competent public sector, the plans from governance networks would have nothing to graft onto, and could not be implemented nor developed.

 

New governance approaches through networks are efficient and effective because they bring in the people who have the expertise in a given area and invite them to be part of a larger solution than just maximizing their bottom line. They engage community members and actors in place-making, helping the region grow in a way that will in turn benefit each member of the network. The network fills the gaps in public action and strengthens the weakest parts of the public sector. Together, a competent local government combined with the nimble and expert private and civic sectors has a great advantage in the field of problem solving.

Defining New Leadership

Leaders today are not what we have always thought of. Both in public spheres and in private businesses, leaders are those who can pull lots of strings together, without being a commanding drill sergeant type of personality. When I think back on historical leaders that influenced and shaped the world, I think of dictators who took control of their land and directed society in their own way. I  think of pharaohs who ruled over their subjects and drove them to great accomplishments. However, today’s leaders are flexible, inspiring visionaries of what we can be as a collective, rather than generals who drive society toward their own aim.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about this new form of leadership and what it means in our new economies and new governance structures, “The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in an affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.”

 

In order to get things done in today’s complex world, multiple factors have to come together. Government has to align with private actors and pro-social groups need to join to help fill the gaps where for profit businesses and public agencies cannot play a role. Leaders must understand the challenges that each of these groups face and find ways to build bridges between them. Leaders develop a shared goal of what is possible, but allow actors to find the path forward, without micromanaging everyone’s actions. In this way, there is no single individual who is calling all the shots. There is no system that drives all actors toward the same end. There are multiple goals, multiple desires, and multiple streams to reach various ends. Leadership’s role is one of coordination, working to figure out what each actor wants, who has the ability to push for new directions, and finding ways to get actors to mesh together, make compromises, and align on plans for the future.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

Beyond Sorting Things Out

One of the arguments that Michael Bungay Stanier makes in his book The Coaching Habit is that we view coaching as something directive, controlling, and done by a mastermind who directs the people they coach as if they were chess pieces. Bungay Stanier highlights the ways that this vision of coaching falls short and fails to actually achieve the goals of coaching. Our visions of great coaches often center around strong men (men because they are often in the professional sports world) who bark orders, make smart decisions, display power, and are shrouded in mystery. Real successful coaching Bungay Stanier argues, is actually less about the coach, is less directive and more exploratory, and more focused on growth than on problem solving.

 

One of his chapters starts with large bold text reading, “Call them forward to learn, improve, and grow, rather than to just get something sorted out.” A bad view of a successful coach places them at the center of the coaching relationship. The coach finds the weaknesses, identifies the problems and shortcomings, and then directs the people they work with to make specific changes and to do specific things to overcome their obstacles. The coach’s brilliance leads the way and their orders sort out the problems for everyone so that the team can be great.

 

Unfortunately, this view of coaching is not actually helpful for individual growth nor is it representative of the leadership of great teams. When a coach takes this approach, what they find is that they are increasingly called upon and relied on to solve every problem and curve ball thrown at the team. The coach becomes the go to voice for every decision and it is up to them to determine the right path forward in every situation. Success and failure rest on the coach, and while this may give the coach great power and prestige (if things go well) it limits the potential and possibilities of the team. Any human can only make so many decisions and take on so many projects. Being involved in every single decision may give you great power, but it is also constraining, stressful, and limiting.

 

Truly successful teams are able to distribute leadership, authority, and decision-making. A good coach allows decisions to be made independently of themselves so that they can take on new opportunities and think long-term. To do this, coaches can’t just solve every problem that comes up, they need to help those they work with to learn, improve, and develop real skills that will help them tackle the myriad of challenges that can and cannot be predicted. When coaches empower rather than direct, the team can flourish as more people are able to apply skill sets that make a difference. Rather than being limited by the time, attention span, and strengths of the coach, these teams can be dynamic, flexible, creative, and fast. The role of the coach becomes one of empowerment by identifying areas to develop skills for others rather than to provide answers from above.

Love the People

In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker describes a woman he met who shaped his life when he was living in a high rise housing unit in Newark, New Jersey named Ms. Virginia Jones. She was the leader of the Tenants Association, and a strong leader advocating for more support for the families stuck in Brick Tower, the building that she and Booker lived in when they met.

 

Booker had many direct interactions with Ms. Jones, as did almost everyone living in the building, and he was struck by her leadership. Reflecting on her leadership he writes, “I would come to know that Ms. Jones embodied a critical ideal of leadership: you can’t lead the people unless you love the people, she was a leader in that community because people knew she loved them, no matter what. She had an infinite reservoir of love.”

 

Many people want to be in leadership positions and want to be loved by the people around them, but are unable to truly connect with the people in their community or organization. The lesson Booker learned from Ms. Jones is that before you can receive the love of others, you must first become outwardly loving, interested in connecting with others, and truly committed to being there for the people around you. By showing your love for the people around you, you can build trust and develop the leadership skills necessary to receive that same love in a reciprocal fashion.

 

Ms. Jones challenged Booker and challenged the people in the community to become something better and to become more responsive to their common needs. She looked out for the community because she loved the community. She was not looking out only for herself out of self love, and as a result she was loved and respected by the rest of the community.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.

Personal Change

Author Fred Kiel advocates for self-awareness and and the development of strong moral character traits among leaders in business throughout his book Return on Character.  Kiel spends time explaining the ways in which leaders with strong values, who truly care about the people they work with and providing real value for the people they serve, bring more to the companies they lead and help their companies find greater growth. His research showed that workforces become more engaged, customers view the companies from better perspectives, and leadership teams are more effective when they are guided by self awareness and a drive to make the best moral decisions possible for their teams.  In the book Kiel addresses the transformation to become a leader with strong moral character and he explains the challenges with our self-transformations.

 

“In any event, personal change is, by definition, personal. Changing the habits that shape your character is an act that penetrates to the very core of who you are as a person.  Such change isn’t quick or easy, but it’s well worth the time and attention you’ll invest in it.  Developing the character of strong, principled leadership helps you in every aspect of your life: decision making, relationships, goal setting, conflict resolution, life and career satisfaction, and so much more.  Of course, it also involves hard work.”

 

In this quote Kiel is addressing the idea of applying self-awareness to your current situation to help drive the change that you want to see to become a better leader.  It is never easy to begin a process of self-reflection and to truly understand what parts of yourself are working well and what parts are in conflict with the goals you want to achieve, but it is crucial to growth as a leader.  Kiel explains in his book that those leaders who his research identified as the strongest moral leaders had a well developed understanding of their past and the events in their past which shaped them.  Working through the difficult process of understanding what impacted our lives to push us to where we currently are does not have a specific road map.  The journey is individual and personal. It is also a process that develops over time and, as we strengthen our self-reflection muscles, becomes more specific.  The way we see the events in our life will change over time. As we grow and become better at reflecting on our lives, we will begin to reach places where we better understand not just our actions, but the actions of others and why we feel the way we do about them.

 

By driving through this process and constantly focusing on self-awareness and self-reflection it is possible to become a moral leader.  We can reach a place where we are fully understanding of ourselves, our reactions, and emotions, and we can use that to better connect with those around us. Our decision making will be more complete as we can better empathize with those around us and view the world through more perspectives.