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Not a week goes by where I don’t have to say, “You know there is more than one style of effective leadership. Quieter, lower ego needs, super smart with little flash is actually a very dynamic combination. Just ask the people who work for that person.” These comments are usually made to CEOs who are thinking about his/her executive team and succession planning. If one more leader says to me, “Yeah, but I don’t sense the fire in the belly” I will pull my hair out and run screaming from the room. At least in my inner fantasies. That would actually be a very bad move in front of a CEO.

I’ve written about this in the past but, as I said, this is a constant conversation. And all the latest press and research studies seem to be wondering why there are not more women in executive roles.  Here is a great HBR blog entry on just this topic:

This expresses my point of view quite well and is backed up with some good psychological insights. I believe that gender plays a large part in this but I also think it is bigger than that. Whether these less aggressive traits show up in a man or a woman the reality is that typically male behaviors and disposition are valued more highly than more typically female ones. In my experience there are many men who are more humble and many women who are more narcissistic than their traditional gender assignments.

But now for the real world application….

  • When you find yourself in a leadership selection conversation, challenge, challenge, challenge. “He may be a little rough around the edges but he really gets stuff done” usually translates to “He has tyrannical tendencies with his team”. “He always seems to be on top of what I need” means he is good at managing up. Ask his staff what it is like to work for him: does he engage them in getting the work done or just bark orders and is he badgering them for information so his ass is covered? It is a big mistake to conflate good results with good leadership methods. Probe much more on the “how” he gets those results.
  • The talented but introverted leader can be phenomenally productive but it looks different than the extrovert. S/he has a strong tendency to work with and through their people instead of standing on high. This person holds a fundamental belief that there is no true and sustainable success unless others are involved. An extrovert believes that his/her actions determine success (and sometimes will acknowledge failure). So the introvert looks more subdued. Team members give the presentations while the leader is more in background. Again, this gets mistaken for (pick the one that fits) discomfort with being in front of a group, too much delegation to the staff, not engaged enough or just plain wrong. When the reality is a completely different behavior style and set of beliefs.
  • If you really want to know how effective a leader is have candid conversations with his/her staff and pick up the buzz around the office. Without exception, these understated leaders are rock stars with the staff. They provide coaching and real development opportunities for their people. They don’t shy away from the tough conversations but they are delivered with respect. “You are consistently missing the mark. I’ve tried to be helpful. What else do you need to get on track? Or do you think this is just the wrong fit for you? Let me help you either succeed or exit gracefully.” They let others speak first, they listen intently and only chime in if something was missed. They are often described as “the best boss I ever had”. These people serve as role models and informal mentors for people all over the organization. I’ve seen people change functions or locations (globally!) to continue working and growing with these leaders. I dare you to find that kind of admiration or loyalty with the more obnoxious leaders.
  • When I look at the composition of leadership styles on an executive team they are, not surprisingly, very monochromatic. Leaders tend to surround themselves with people who are more like them than not. Yes, yes, they’ve all read the books that say this is absolutely the wrong way to go but in the real world most leaders simply find it easier to manage a team of like-minded people rather than one with many points of view. I can count on one hand the number of CEOs I’ve encountered that select for differences and are comfortable handling that. So if the leader is primarily results focused in an aggressive manner you tend to find a whole team of those types. Ironically, if there are one or two of these quieter leaders on the team they become revered. They even get iconic nicknames: Sage, Yoda, Guru. And they always get feedback to speak up more often. To which they reply, “When I have something valuable to say I always say it. I don’t need to hear the sound of my own voice.”

I have so many stories about individual understated executives who are treasured assets in their organizations. But when asked if they are CEO material the current CEO and the boards give a highly qualified “yes, but”. The translation: S/he is amazing but I just worry that s/he will get eaten alive by the investors or the board or the industry so we should really be thinking about someone tougher.

What a loss. And what predictable thinking. Isn’t it time yet for a broader definition of effective leadership styles?

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