Changing the Way We Think About Leadership

Last spring, I took a class at Clemson that changed my life. I think it could change everyone’s. It was a seminar on leadership that proved to each student that all of the theories and formulas they previously were taught on how to develop one’s self as a leader – through both school and personal experience – were wrong. I think an activity we did as a class in February can best sum up what I took away from the course.

Our assignment was to bring two lists to class: one on what must be present in order to lead, and another on what must not be present. I’ll share mine with you.

What must be present: Integrity, workability, passion, listening, ability to take risks, ability to delegate, balance, awareness of context, aligned values, vision, purpose.

What must not be present: Perceptual constraints, narrow-mindedness, bias / prejudice, selfish agenda / wrong motives.

We all settled into our seats and the professor wrote, “What must be present” on the board. He began calling on students to ask what their lists included. People contributed words such as compassionate, a good listener, respectful, honest, sound integrity, good communicator, risk-taker, entrepreneurial, and so forth until we had about thirty words up on the board that described effective leaders. We moved through the same process for what must not be present.

Once our lists were sufficiently representative of what the class felt, we were all looking at a daunting checklist of the things we need to make sure that we’re constantly doing or not doing as a leader. Even though they sometimes contradicted, all of the traits up there did seem necessary. It revealed the complexity of leadership to us, and the room was notably tenser.

“Let’s say one of my employees is going through a very difficult time in their life,” the professor began. “They drive drunk to work one day and get into a car accident that kills the other driver. Should I fire him?” Our class was a little confused, but we thought they should probably be fired. He pushed, “but should I not be compassionate for the hard time they’re going through?” We agreed that this was not the time to show compassion, but exemplify what is safe and just. Our professor erased compassionate from the list. Moving on to the next trait, a good listener, he asked, “Have any of you ever had a boss that just didn’t listen to you or your co-workers? They seemed pretty confident that they had all the answers?” My classmates admitted that they had. My professor asked, “Yet were they still leading?” Yes. He erased a good listener. “Has there ever been a political leader in our nation that didn’t show respect to a certain person or group of people?” We nodded. “Yet was he still leading in politics?” We nodded again. He erased respectful.

We went through both lists, erasing word after word until we were left with a completely empty whiteboard. What does this mean?

You have boundless access to leadership. Being a good leader isn’t about fitting yourself into the mold of a good leader; it’s about creating your own unique mold. It doesn’t mean flexing every single one of those traits at every task at every moment; it means knowing when to have compassion, knowing when you need to listen more closely, knowing when you need to take a risk, or knowing when you need to be more patient. It’s about being indecisive or timid by nature, but being in a position where you have to become assertive. It’s about recognizing the important characteristics that propel a team forward, and recognizing which characteristics you don’t have in your role so that you can bring people on to the team to help or see where you can grow. Maybe I haven’t gotten you on board yet.

I was recently asked in a mock interview at the Michelin Career Center, “How do you like to be managed or supervised?” I replied that I like a balance between clear expectations and freedom to exercise creativity and good judgment, allowing everyone to bring their own strengths to their task. But someone else might’ve said, “I like a leader that allows me complete freedom,” or, “I want a every step detailed for me,” or, “I want to have a strong friendship with my boss,” etc. These answers would each warrant a leader with different strengths, styles, and priorities, which would either eliminate any formula for leadership or decide that only ONE of these leaders is right. But is that really true?

If you’re anything like me, you might initially be feeling a little bit of discomfort. I have tried to push myself into numerous leadership positions and learning experiences with hopes of unlocking that one ingredient or answer that gave me success in leadership. But this activity ended up making me feel freed and validated. I could confidently grow as a leader and continue to understand leadership with the knowledge that they way I lead isn’t wrong in comparison, or the way others lead isn’t superior in comparison. That cliché that we always hear about maximizing our strengths rather than focusing on our weaknesses became more alive for me. People are so unique and uniquely impactful, and this perspective gave me a new appreciation for the different strengths that we each bring to leading. After all, the problems you will deal with as a leader aren’t black and white, so why should we treat leadership that way?

What are your thoughts and reactions to this article? Do you agree? Disagree? I would love to talk to you in the comments below!


Written By: Melissa Rau


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