Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

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.

One thought on “Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

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  1. This is an outstanding post (another one)! Dr. Howard has captured the essence of the challenges the other 242 leaders (most of us) face. It isn’t an issue of just strengths or weaknesses. It is a matter of job fit and where there is not a fit, the leaders who will be the most effective find a way to “workaround” the personality traits that don’t fit. And, as indicated in the post, the keys are 1) self awareness and 2) a “willingness to compensate for one’s weaknesses.” (Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all begin to view “weaknesses” as opportunities to grow and/or find a way around the areas in order to become more effective?

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