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Leadership Is Not a Formula

There are lots of leadership formulas out there. Are you a replica leader or the real deal? Do you know the truth of leadership development?

According to the VIA Institute on Character, “social intelligence” is the strength of being aware of the motives and feelings of others and oneself, knowing what to do to fit into different social situations, and knowing what makes other people tick. Also according to the VIA Institute, of my 24 character strengths, social intelligence is number 24. They say 20–24 qualifies as a “lesser strength.” Nothing to worry about with social intelligence being my lowest strength. It’s just not a “signature strength.”

There are so many frameworks, types, quadrants, styles, and labels for leaders. I walked away from the last professional development I attended with a leadership style, signature strengths, a conflict resolution approach, and a new revolutionary framework that, “until now,” was elusive to all but those who adopted a certain mindset from a for-profit organizational consulting firm. Seriously, I learned a lot from my professional development and thought it was better than a lot of workshops. I should probably simmer down and be grateful to work for an organization that enthusiastically invests in my personal growth. Still, I’m skeptical of prescriptive leadership formulas and believe they can lead to replica leadership.

Let’s go back to my low social intelligence and consider a variable. At times, I lack social intelligence. I’m often a social leaf — just blowing in the wind. I won’t deny it. Nevertheless, when I took the VIA strengths survey, someone had recently told me I lacked empathy. I wonder how different my results would look if that same person had told me they appreciated my honesty? Maybe I would have thought, hey, I am aware of other peoples’ feelings after all. Instead, I was demoralized and ready to rip on my social ineptitude in the survey. How does a leadership formula account for that influence?

Here’s another variable. VIA says humor is one of my signature strengths, though I’m sure there are people who would argue otherwise. Sometimes, our self-awareness does not line up with everyone else’s awareness of us. But do we ever talk about that? Right now, are loads of people asking why does Nick think humor is a signature strength when he looks about as happy as a flat tire? Will anyone give me that feedback? Or will I continue to believe I am funny while everyone around me thinks the opposite? When so-called leadership strengths function differently in reality than they do in our heads, things can get messy.

I dropped the term replica leadership earlier. To me, that’s when people construct their leadership out of neat little pieces. It’s leadership with all the variables controlled. In other words, it’s when we build our leadership like a replica. We make it look good, make it look right, and put it on the shelf for display. Replicas look nice on the outside, but they are fragile, lacking both function and flavor. They aren’t the real thing. They have strict limits. They collapse when a bunch of screaming kids walk all over them. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in reflection and awareness. Those are good, yet it is action that makes a leader, and it is confidence and competence that make a great one. Replicas stay on the shelf — and in their lane — to avoid stress and potential breakage.

The pre-packaged leadership tools I got from professional development can be helpful, even transformational. If for the next several months I have conversations with others about my strengths and lesser strengths (weaknesses sound so friendly when you put them that way), using a shared vocabulary, practicing new skills, taking risks, learning from mistakes, evaluating growth, trying again, then I’ll improve as a leader. I hope that my colleagues and I take our heightened awareness and address uncomfortable topics, challenging each other to seek out opportunities for learning, celebrating positive contributions, deepening connections.

If we do nothing, we’ll likely forget most of what we learned and move on with our lives. Leadership development is a constant cycle of observation, practice, feedback, and reflection. It doesn’t just happen. It is a process with a defined structure, meaningful evaluations, and high expectations.

Leaders are trained. The best training is lived experience, the dirt under your fingernails, the kick in the gut, the cheer after a hard-won struggle. My hope for everyone who aspires to be a leader is that they stay hungry, but not just for themselves. I said that great leaders are confident and competent. That’s true. Unless it is the leader’s goal to be more confident and competent than everyone else — often by means of accumulating power and wealth.

Great leaders are hungry to make others confident and competent. They take introverted people like me and make them feel 1,000 feet tall. Confident and competent teams make things happen, and the resulting synergy is contagious (the self-improvement industry is worth over $10 billion, and it is selling the two Cs). Leadership is not a formula, and leaders are not robots. Some moments call for a shepherd, others a captain. When the doo doo hits the fan, no one cares what your default leadership style is. They want to know if you can deal with the mess and make them feel good, no matter the stink.


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