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The Leadership Recipe Myth

I’m really lucky – working with organizations all across North America I’ve seen the awesomeness that diversity (AKA differences in people) can bring. From strategies and marketing that cross ethnic and racial boundaries to inclusion and tolerance for gender and religious differences, diversity creates a more inclusive, vibrant, and interesting workplace. Embracing and respecting differences is the heart of a modern organization.

Recently though I’ve been wondering why this passion for diversity does not extend into what it means to be a leader. Millions of pieces of ‘pop leadership’ writing are stuck on the kind of insta-leadership lessons and crappy click bait like ‘The Secret Leadership Traits You Need’ or ‘Top 10 Leadership Actions’, and other over-simplified bullshit recipes for leadership.

Leadership is not a simple, ‘one-size fits all’ recipe. There’s no evidence that a common set of attributes produces consistently good results. It’s time to throw out our generally accepted assumptions and myths about leadership traits because they just aren’t reliable.

When we ask participants in our workshops what traits make leaders effective they usually call out stuff like charisma and extraversion. But does this make sense? Does every team really want an extraverted leader? To be effective, the behaviors of a leader must match what followers want and need. So does every person, and every business environment call for a chatty extravert (think for a moment about a heads-down software development team) or is there a difference (diversity) in the needs of followers?

In our software dev team example, an extraverted leader might (will) distract and annoy. They’d likely prefer a leader who is also focused and prefers efficient daily check-ins instead of an extravert who is constantly wandering around socializing and holding hour-long meetings.

Participants also cited assertiveness as a universal leadership requirement. But does an intact, highly competent team that has proven success really need an assertive leader who is likely to push and impose their will on all already high functioning group? Maybe a more reserved or laid back leader supporting team autonomy is what they’ll need to succeed.

What about expertise? That’s gotta be crucial for leadership. Not so fast. Consider this question: Is it possible that younger, more junior people will have more knowledge (e.g. mobile tech, social media) even though they have less work experience? In a dynamic world you may literally not be able to find a middle to senior manager with any real tech experience familiar to Millennials.

So what’s the ‘so-what?’ Different people, different teams, and different work call for different approaches, different behaviors. Diversity in work requires diversity in leadership. What’s REALLY required is a willingness to adjust how we behave – that would be ‘flexibility’.

Think of it this way. Ever looked at a friend’s relationship with their partner and thought to yourself “Hell no – I wouldn’t want to live with THAT”? But they’re totally happy. Why? Because its all about different strokes for different folks. There’s no one perfect example of the perfect partner. It’s the same in the work world.

So whether you’re hiring for your next leader or working on your own skills, remember that there isn’t a perfect recipe of skills that you should be looking for or developing. Just being able to go with your team’s flow; pivoting, bending, reacting and changing is the secret to success. Diverse thinking and flexibility is what the future of leadership is all about. So hail to the quiet, the subtle, the chatty, the introverts, and the huggers – all of them (and us) have a place in the game.

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