Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

August 17, 2016 1 comment

One can be born to be a 7-foot NBA center, but one cannot be made into one. Or? Look at the Dutch, who have an unusually tall population and who also are known for their unusually heavy consumption of calcium (milk, cheese, and their kin). Clearly most human behavior has a largely genetic component, but there is always, well, almost always, room for the environment to play a small part.

Research reveals ideal Big Five trait levels for leadership. Across all leadership situations, followers need their leaders to be calm in a crisis (low Need for Stability), an active communicator (high Extraversion), strategically visionary (high Originality/Openness), sufficiently tough to say no when necessary (low to mid Accommodation/Agreeableness), and focused on the objective (high Consolidation/Consciousness). For short, I refer to this profile as N-E+O+A-/=C+. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” exemplifies these qualities. Here the poet summarizes the qualities of his leader:

One equal temper (N-) of heroic hearts (E+),
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (C+)
To strive (A-), to seek (O+), to find (O+), and not to yield (A-).
Ulysses Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg

Ulysses, by Nick Thompson, from early Roman sarcophagus. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But here’s the rub: Few of us are born with this temperament. Consider the odds: 1 in 3 are born N- (the bottom third of the normal distribution), 1/3 are born E+, 1/3 O+, 1/3 A-/+ (upper half of the low range of A plus the bottom half of the midrange of A), and 1/3 are born C+. The probability of being born with all five of these trait levels in one person is 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3, or one in 243. You would be correct to infer from this that, in a company of 200+ employees, there are many leader/managers who are misfits for their role. What are they to do?

I recently discussed this dilemma with an associate in Thailand. He was wondering whether our ideal leader formula might be too stringent a criterion for leader identification. He had received pushback from his clients, questioning the validity of the formula.

Here’s my explanation. Few people are ideally suited for their roles. Everyone must compensate, or adapt, in some way that is not totally natural for them. For example, in my role as research and development officer, I must be attentive to details. However, my temperament is not detail-oriented. I prefer the big ideas. But I must attend to details if I am to do my job, just as the introverted mad scientist must adapt and act extraverted at parties in order to schmooze with deep pockets and land funding for projects. We must all adapt in some way, except for the few, the 1 in 243, who are natural fits.

Leaders who are missing one or more of the ideal trait levels have three options. All are based on 1) self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses (gained through an assessment process), and 2) a willingness to find ways to compensate for one’s weaknesses.

  1. Choose the context. Not all leadership demands are equal. Some followers require more communication (E+) than others, as in sales teams needing more chat than a laboratory of research chemists. Put an E+ in a research lab and you have a bull in a china shop. The point: Find a context that needs what you offer, trait-wise. If you are prone to stress (N+), and you really want (or need) to lead, then find a context that is relatively stress-free (e.g., managing a gift shop rather than managing a hospital emergency room). The ideal leader trait levels are averages, and that means that in many situations more extreme levels—both higher and lower—can be effective.
  1. Embrace interdependence. Self-awareness is critical for this option. Interdependence means leaning on one another by acknowledging that others’ strengths can compensate for my weaknesses. My company is a team of ten. Not one of us exhibits all five of the ideal leader trait levels. However, on our leadership team of three, all five trait levels are present—distributed among the three of us. Jane has the N-, O+, and A-, Lisa has the O+,E+, A-, and C+, and I have the O+ (that’s about all, I fear—I’m not very leaderly!). In our meetings, I tend to brainstorm, while Lisa serves as evaluator. Lisa provides hard data for tough decisions, while Jane finds ways to circumvent constraints. Lisa and I both worry about doomsday, while Jane is as calm as a hibernating bear. We all value our differences and acknowledge that we each bring something necessary to the table, like proteins, fats, and carbs. You bring the tomatoes, you over there bring the mayo, and I’ll bring the white bread.
  1. Retain a coach. A coach in the leadership world is someone who can offer the leader suggestions on how to achieve one’s objectives. This could be anyone whom the leader trusts, from business or life partner to a professional psychologist or business coach. I was once engaged as a coach to the managing partner of an architecture firm of 80+ associates. The managing partner was concerned that associates complained about the quality of his meetings. The manager was quite introverted and hated meetings. I suggested he ask one of his more extraverted department heads to facilitate the meetings, and that the manager sit in the back of the room and serve as a resource throughout the meeting. Problem solved. In the case of Ulysses, his self-awareness made him aware that he lacked the steel nerves (N–) and rigid focus (C++) to resist the seductive sirens. Some coach—his #2 perhaps—may have suggested that he rope himself to the mast and plug his ears to bolster his resistance. Disaster averted. Whether a “coach” nudged him in the direction of acknowledging the weakness and using an adaptive strategy, or whether Ulysses figured it out on his own, this required self-awareness and interdependence.

Just because we are not a 1 in 243 natural leader, that does not mean we cannot lead. If we wish to lead, or find ourselves having to lead, we have these three options to be optimally responsive to our followers’ needs. People need a leader who is strong in will with an equal temper and strong in heart to strive, seek, and find, and not to yield. If all of these qualities are not in one person, adapt or look elsewhere.

Beauty, Billions, and Brains

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

My search for summer reading led me to a first novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (ROYCE-teacher)–The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin, 2014). Hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded intriguing—a fictional, brilliant, female, University of Wisconsin mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch was dead, and brainy mathematicians from around the were globe sitting shiva. Much of the story dealt with the difficulty of brainy people letting their abilities shine in public, with many, especially women, preferring to hide their smarts.

Woman Thinker-Stanley Zimny

Rachela’s son, Sasha, also a mathematician, at one point mused about what it meant to be an intellectual—someone who uses mental acuity to guide their life rather than acting only on impulses, faith, and whims. Such intellectual activity entailed asking for definitions, evidence, facts, and their ilk. Think of it as critical thinking.

 

One passage struck me as important to share. Sasha, given to comparing American and eastern European culture, mused about how persons with money and beauty are encouraged to go public with their gifts, while persons with brains are discouraged:

To Americans, the outward display of intelligence is considered unseemly. The Donald Trumps of the world can boast about their penthouses and Ferraris, their women can wear baubles the size of Nebraska, and no one says boo. If you have money, you’re almost always expected to flaunt it. But intellect? This is something else entirely. Women, especially, are supposed to play dumb. One of the richest men in America has said publicly that if your SAT score is too high, find a way to sell 200 points. Supposedly you don’t need them.
This inability of Americans to value intellect is, to me, maddening. If someone possesses physical beauty, they will not be cloistered or hidden in dark shadows. No, they are expected to be the source of pleasing scenery to others. We are not frightened in this country by beauty. We celebrate it, as we should. But what about beautiful brains, the kind that can create amazing worlds out of nothing but thoughts, that can find a way to intricately bond elements of our lives and our ideas that conventional wisdom tells us are inert? Why should anyone hide this intellect ever? No. F—-g boring financiers like Warren Buffett. If you have a high score on your SAT, don’t sell a single point. In fact, find a way to get smart enough to achieve a perfect score. There is no such thing as unnecessary beauty, whether it be physical or intellectual. (Kindle location 3401)

I am reminded of E. O. Wilson’s comment that the world needs more citizens who require evidence before making decisions, that it is not differences in politics and religion that entail strife, but differences in the willingness to think critically rather than to uncritically follow a leader. Said another way, we need to celebrate intellect, not hide it. Don’t be timid in asking questions and searching for evidence. It is a rich, beautiful thing.

Leaving Stuff Behind

I’d like to leave more than a tombstone for folks to remember me by.

German-American psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of the importance of generativity—of leaving something for future generations to value and remember us by. Something tangible that affirms our life has meaning for others after all is said and done. Our legacy. Recent happiness research confirms that working towards leaving something positive for others to remember us by provides us with a positive emotional boost.

Tombstone William Allen, Image Historian, 2007 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tombstone, William Allen, Image Historian, 2007. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Summer is opportune for working on our legacy. Whether on vacation or just chilling in the shade, the time is ripe for thinking about, choosing, and beginning work on what we will leave for those after us to remember our values, idiosyncrasies, skills, and so forth. What are the elements of your legacy, and how far along are you in making it real and lasting? Just this week Michael Jordan has added another element to his—a $500,000 investment in literacy. Just last night I added an eight inch plank to the hull of my wooden model of the 1492 caravelle Santa Maria—certainly a more modest gift for my grandchildren, but nonetheless satisfying as a small way of being remembered (unless it gets crushed, of course!).

Just in case you’re not already engaged in building your legacy, here is a list of some well-known forms of legacy, and also some that perhaps you’ve not thought of as such:

  • Writing a book of any sort
  • Writing a family history and putting it in one’s home town library
  • Building a cradle or a doll house
  • Constructing a scrap book or photo album, whether on paper or digitally (I have 13 Power Point photo albums!)
  • Painting a portrait of a family member(s)—or having someone else paint/draw them
  • Endowing a chair in a university, symphony, or…
  • Founding a scholarship
  • Creating an extended family mail list and sharing it with everyone in the family
  • Writing a song or other piece of music
  • Collecting family recipes and publishing them (or recipes from your religious group, scout organization, book club, etc.)
  • Designing a garden for public viewing and nurturing it to life
  • Sculpting something
  • Interviewing (and recording and transcribing) everyone in your family or circle for possible use by you or someone else in writing a family history
  • Write a poem or story or song to be read (or sung) on special occasions—Thanksgiving, July 4, Bastille Day…
  • Creating a video documentary of your family or organization
  • Contributing money towards having something named after you or your family
  • Building a mountain cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Building a beach or lake cabin and leaving it to your family/friends/company
  • Write and enact a law or policy that the next generation will attribute to you with pride
  • Make costumes, ornaments, or other craft collections that will benefit others
  • Endow in your family’s name a permanent summer camp scholarship for a youth who otherwise would not be able to attend camp
  • Keep a personal/family diary, such that others may read it after your time is up
  • Build a Little Free Library for your neighborhood (littlefreelibrary.org)
  • Plan and build a sports or exercise arena of some sort—ball field, tennis court, and so forth
  • Through interviews and other media, collect stories from your family (or other organization) and write them up as an anthology. Start with the most senior members, and get as much detail as possible. Perhaps do group interviews, as in several cousins recalling stories about their parents/grandparents
  • Start a business or non-profit or social club that will continue indefinitely in association with your family or friends
  • Organize and start an annual family reunion
  • Build your family tree—consider using an online tool such as Ancestry.com
  • Write your autobiography, or dictate it to a youth who needs a class, scouting, or other project (as in the Senior Project)
  • Do the taxidermy thing and create a stuffed wall mounting to look down on future generations
  • Design and make a set of clothes for your grandchild’s doll(s)
  • Get a book like The Big Book of Whittling and Woodcarving or The Foxfire Book and make toys, statues, games, pony tail holders, and so forth to leave with your family or friends.
  • Create your family medical history, and distribute it to family members so that they may use your information as a starter for their own medical histories to leave on file with their family doctor
  • Get your spit tested for DNA (23andMe, Family Tree DNA, etc.) and share with your family your/their ancestry
  • Prepare your will thoughtfully—my mother made a list of all her possessions and valued items, then had each of her seven children, in turn from oldest to youngest, select what they wished for their own upon her demise
  • Knit afghans or piece together quilts for those close to you and/or for those in need
  • Win trophies for competitions in your special field, whether a Pulitzer Prize or a neighborhood tennis ladder
  • Preserve your scouting or military uniform or wedding dress or christening gown as a wall mount
  • Write a script for a play or some kind of event that documents and celebrates the history and characters of your neighborhood—record it and write it up
  • Start a neighborhood festival—the North Bronx Jubilee, or some such
  • Have an exchange student and continue the relationship after their year is up
  • Record your children’s/grandchildren’s voices once a year from birth onward, so that they have a record of the evolution of how their voice has changed over time
  • Collect stories and anecdotes about a favorite family pet or farm animal, and prepare them as a book, scrapbook, audio file, Power Point presentation…
  • Organize and execute a neighborhood event that will continue after you’re gone—e.g. Will and Gertrude’s Annual Halloween Wiener Roast for Amity Avenue (or South Fork Creek rural area)
  • Finance someone’s education (university, trade school, apprenticeship, professional/graduate school) who might otherwise not be able to pursue such

To get the most satisfaction from creating your legacy, choose something that expresses one or more of your values (see The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work) and incorporates one or more of your Big Five personality traits (see The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work or The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22). And, to read more about how this fits into your overall happiness set point, read The Owner’s Manual for Happiness.

Pick one or more and get going! And enjoy the process. Leave more than a tombstone…

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (6. Perfectionism)

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Good enough for government work—not! The government has its share of perfectionists, as well as its share of those with casual standards. Perfectionism is normally distributed throughout the world. It is neither a good nor a bad thing—rather, its value depends on the needs of a particular situation.

My wife once worked with a government department whose manager was noted for bleeding red ink over all outgoing correspondence generated by their office staff. Not once, but draft after draft. A professional might submit a draft ten times before the perfectionist manager found nothing more to perfect and finally approved the letter for sending.

What causes people to be perfectionistic? In five previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. Fourth, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. And then last week, how volunteering is not always altruistic. I call these multi-source behaviors. Perfectionism is sixth on my list. People engage in perfectionist behavior for diverse reasons.

Tibetan sand art

Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks, S. C. Hargis, 2010. CC BY-ND 2.0

Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice (2004), identified two extremes of decision-making—satisficing and maximizing. A satisficer is the proverbial good-enough-for-government-work decision-maker who, for example, might go to one office equipment store, look at their desk chairs, try one or two out, and then make a decision on the spot. A maximizer, on the other hand, is the proverbial make-a mountain-out-of-molehill decision-maker who expands every decision into a do-or-die situation. The maximizer might, for example, go to ten office equipment stores, sit in over 50 chairs, comparing prices and features constantly, and finally make a decision, agonizingly, while the satisficer has used the same time to write the great American novel.

So, why do maximizers do it? Why do people need to make every decision a major event? And, on the other hand, why do some not care about zero defects, ever?

As with other multi-meaning terms, perfectionism springs from many motives. Pittsburgh psychologist Pavel Somov has identified four sources of perfectionist behavior:

  • Neuroticism: striving for perfection in hopes of receiving attention and approval—arises out of a personal sense of insecurity
  • Narcissism: striving for perfection, especially on the part of others, as a way of offsetting low sense of self-worth
  • High-principles: striving for perfection as a form of moral, even Puritanical, righteousness, which can cause a judgmental effect toward others around them
  • Hyper-attentive: striving for perfection because of an innate temperament that finds concentration natural and satisfying

I would add these possible causes:

  • Need for control: a form of micromanagement in which everything needs to be done “my way”
  • High will to achieve: a genuine desire to be expert, or even to be the best, similar to the motive that spurs people to aspire to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice described by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson
  • The consequence of mastery: the Dunning-Kruger effect asserts that the best of the best have an acute sense after every performance that they could have done better—they see flaws in their performance that second-tier performers are clueless about
  • Competitive threat: a genuine concern that unless one is focused on perfection that one will be destroyed in business by masterful competitors
  • Following a model: never knowing anything different, as the Tibetan monks who have grown up with peers who model perfection daily
  • Aesthetics: taking deep pleasure in seeing something perfectly executed

Regardless of the motive for the occasions on which we are perfectionistic, we must realize that perfection is not always called for, and is often seen as satisfying more of a personal need that is of no or minimal benefit to others. To develop a sense of when, and when not, to be perfectionist is to develop the habit of asking for feedback from those who know us, and to develop the habit of being receptive to what they suggest.

showing up

Perfection Paralysis, Neshika Bell, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (5. Volunteering)

April 20, 2016 Leave a comment

“Never volunteer for anything!” That is what they cautioned me when I left the comforts of home in eastern North Carolina for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the sweltering Fall of 1963.

In four previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. And then last week, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. I call these multi-source behaviors.

So how is volunteering a multi-source behavior? When I was in elementary school, I

Volunteer.jpg

Volunteer, by Andrew A., 2012.      CC BY-ND 2.0

remember that my classmates tended to label students who volunteered to help the teacher as “pets.” Cute, but definitely a put-down. Many forms of volunteer behavior pepper the day: offering to pick up lunch for the team, raising one’s hand when the first sergeant asks for three volunteers, offering to help the host clear the table after a dinner party, responding to a request for volunteers to help at school, hospital, marathon, disaster, Katrina, the recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador—the list could go on seemingly forever. Likewise, many explanations exist for why people raise their hand in such circumstances:

  • genuine altruism (no ulterior motive other than to help someone)
  • selfishness (to get on someone’s good side)
  • boredom (needing a change of pace)
  • curiosity (to find out what something is like)
  • romance (to get closer to someone you have an eye for)
  • pride (wanting to make sure the job is well done)
  • happiness (sensing that the volunteer activity will provide a rush of positive emotion)
  • self-inflating pessimism (thinking those involved will get it wrong, and that you are needed to get it right)
  • goal relevance (thinking that this volunteer service will move you closer to attaining a goal)

Milton Rokeach might call these terminal vs. instrumental motives, with genuine altruism being a terminal motive (doing it for the value in-and-of-itself), and the others being instrumental motives (doing it with some other end in mind).

So when I reached basic training and the first sergeant asked for volunteers, what did I do? I volunteered, of course! I volunteered to do extra k.p. (kitchen police, as in peeling potatoes all morning), to haul ammunition from a warehouse to a shooting range, to play the drum in a parade, to unload trucks—any time he asked for volunteers, my hand shot up. Why? What was my motive? Was I just a good guy and a glutton for punishment? To understand my volunteering for everything in basic training, you need to understand that I abhor being marched around, waiting in formation, and herded like cattle. I didn’t like marching in high school band, and I didn’t like marching and standing in formation at Fort Jackson. It was boring and regimenting. I volunteered in order to break up the monotony of same old, same old.

As it turned out, my instinct to ignore the advice about never volunteering paid off. I had a portable chess set that was the size of a postcard and thin as a book’s hard cover. It had flat plastic pieces that fit in narrow slits. During my volunteer episodes, the supervisors (usually corporals or buck sergeants) typically felt kind of sorry for us and gave us frequent breaks. I could always find someone who either a) played chess, or b) was willing to learn the game. So after an hour of hard labor, we got an ice cold Coca Cola in the South Carolina September sun and settled down for a 30-40 minute game of wits under the restorative shade of a giant oak until time for more labor.

Not bad, huh? Certainly better than standing in formation and marching like an army of ants. For me, at least. Not a sergeant’s “pet,” just an independent son-of-a gun!

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (4. Bravery)

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Think twice—what you see may not be what you think.

In three previous posts, we explored situations in which a single behavior might have multiple meanings and interpretations. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Last week, how smiling is not always liking. I call these multi-source behaviors.

Every behavior has a source—a set of conditions that explains why the behavior occurred. 20th century German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin described this in an equation: B = f(P, E). Or, behavior is a function of the interaction of personality in an environment. Just as no person is an island, no personality trait is an island acting independently of its context. A person whose traits include a strong comfort in thinking through complex issues is likely to yawn when conversing one day with gossipers, but then look animated another day when conversing with theorizers. Whether yawning or animation happens is a function of their personality (complexity) and environment (simplistic or complex conversation).

Similarly, today’s subject—bravery—is a function of personality and

Bravery by de la Cruz

 

Bravery, by Richard dela Cruz, 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0

 

environment. Personality traits that could account for acts of bravery include nerves of steel, optimism, anger, high activity level, a preference for taking charge, low trust in others, imagination, competitiveness, pride, selflessness, ambition, or just plain rational thinking about what needs to be done. And of course a major factor that leads to acts of bravery is skill—it is more likely that a strong swimmer will jump off a boat to rescue a non-swimmer than would a weak swimmer. But whether each of these traits might activate and cause a brave behavior is a function of the environment—the situation surrounding the person/animal/etc. in distress. Are they a relative, a loved relative, a hated relative, a friend, an enemy, a family heirloom, one’s life savings, a helpless person, known or unknown, or are they important to realizing one’s ambition?

Acts of bravery could range from a skilled fighter chasing away a bully from an unknown, defenseless person (low personal risk and high chance of success with no obvious potential for personal reward—just doing the right thing) to an unskilled swimmer charging into the surf to rescue their drowning child (high personal risk and moderate chance of success with high personal reward). One more selfless, the other more self-serving. Not all bravery stems from a common motive. Make no assumptions. Before ascribing an act of bravery to a cause, to a bravery mindset, have a dialog with the brave person or those who know them, and determine what it was about the brave person’s personality, in combination with the context of the event, that most likely led to the brave response in a desperate situation.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (3. Smiles and Liking)

What you see isn’t always what you get

Indeed. As I wrote in two recent posts about solitude (not always loneliness) and fidgeting (not always impatience), common behaviors don’t necessarily originate with common causes. Will Shakespeare would have us think otherwise, as he suggested when he had Julius Caesar say this of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 190–195

The Bard makes two assumptions here: they who are fat are happy, and they who are gaunt are plotting to take your dinner (or throne). All who are fat are not happy, and all gaunt persons are not dangerous.

Take smiling. One might assume that, when someone smiles at you, they like you. Friendly smiles, however, are not always friendly. Body language research has demonstrated that most of us interpret someone’s smile aimed at us as evidence that they like us. But smiling can also be a subterfuge, a stalking horse that masks inner hostility at worst, or boredom at the least. Or it could suggest amusement, but not necessarily liking. Even if a smile does convey truly positive feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is flirting with you. Research shows that the typical heterosexual man tends to interpret a woman’s smile as meant for him in a romantic way, while women do not typically take a man’s smile as a come on.

The 19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne defined a true smile, i.e., one

duchenne smile

Duchenne smile, by RealWann, 2006. CC BY 2.0

that reflects positive affect, as one that entails both a contraction of the muscle that raises the termini of one’s mouth, and also the muscle that raises one’s cheeks with the effect of forming bird feet flanking one’s eyes. Today, psychologists contrast this genuine Duchenne smile with the Pan Am smile, named for the desperate flight attendants who try their best to put on a polite, happy face to their often unpleasant travelers. That Pan Am is caput suggests that fake smiles don’t work.

To ensure that you don’t misinterpret someone’s smile, look for bird feet at the edge of their eyes and cheek creases at the edge of their upturned mouth edges. If these two signs are present, assume that a) the person is feeling positive affect, or that b) they are a fine actor and may be seething with hatred, evaporating from boredom, or maybe deeply amused at something. In a good way, or not.

Like most behaviors, a smile’s motive must be confirmed, or clarified, through dialog.

It turns out that Julius Caesar (via Shakespeare) was right in his interpretation. Luck of the Romans.

But after all is said, it sure is nice to be around smiles, rather than frowns, even if smiles, like flowers, are resting on something rotten and smelly below!

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