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Stop Chasing Leadership Traits

August 26, 2020

By Randy Hall


When you talk to great leaders, you quickly find that they don’t really have gifts, or traits or talents that are unique to them.  And sometimes when you compare them to struggling leaders, which I get to do often, you find that the struggling leaders are in many ways just as gifted and well-intended as the great leaders.  Most people want to make leadership about a set of character traits, and that’s why most of the time we can’t explain or teach it well.  If someone tells you that great leaders are caring, empathetic, decisive, fair, considerate, charismatic, visionary, inclusive, thoughtful, kind, assertive, genuine, authentic people...Well, what’s your first step in getting there again?

Leadership isn’t about traits.  Yes, you have to be a decent human to lead most of the time, and certainly to do it for any length of time.  But beyond that, anyone can establish a set of processes and habits that serve them and the people they lead exceptionally well.  And I know lots of decent people who are not, or not yet, accomplished leaders. We have simply robbed people of the chance to develop as leaders because we talk about who or what they need to become as if they should go sit in a cave for a few years and somehow discover complete self-enlightenment to make their sales or project management team more successful.

When you work with really great leaders, you find that they have systems in place that help them do an exceptional job on a consistent basis.  I know leaders that prepare questions for their team each week, that take walks each morning and think about what their team needs, that spend time each week reflecting on the small improvements they want to make in the way they schedule their time. I know leaders that prepare for coaching conversations in a repeatable, organized way, that journal regularly to consider new actions and habits they might work on and to find new approaches to challenges they are facing as a leader. I work with leaders that consume ideas and thoughts each week in a scheduled way that helps them develop new insights about what they can do to improve their leadership skills. They dive into leadership resources that allow them to improve their coaching skills, rather than focus on “becoming more empathetic.”  Because you can’t practice traits, but you can practice actions and habits.

Find a person who executes a systematic, proven coaching process, and you will find a person who is described as empathetic, along with lots of other good things.  Those are outcomes of becoming skilled at human interactions, not something you just find within yourself one day.

Leadership should be taught to people, not told to people.

We will say things like “you need to be more authentic,” but we don’t help aspiring leaders set up a system of things to do on a regular basis that make them more authentic.  We tell them to be more decisive, but we don’t often help them establish a process for decision making.  We tell them to give regular feedback to their team, but we don’t help them understand the steps of delivering feedback that people listen to and consider thoughtfully.  By the way, that information is right here if you would like to learn how to deliver feedback that actually matters to people.

And then we wonder why research often shows us that only around 20% of the managers out there are considered good leaders.  And that is killing our opportunity to build more great businesses, communities, and even families.

As you consider your ability to help the leaders around you, and yourself lead more effectively, think of leadership as a set of steps and skills, not traits and innate abilities. Yes, people will have some natural talents that align with those different skills or make them feel more natural to them, but find strengths in there and develop them into superpowers. I have known exceptional leaders that were great coaches but average orators, great organizers but lacked charisma, great logical thinkers but lousy visionaries.  You can lead with your strengths and find ways to support your team as they complement other areas.  You don’t have to do leadership alone, in fact, leadership cannot be done alone.

Break everything you want your people to be into steps that can get them there.  Break everything you want leaders in your organization to become, into steps that help them practice and execute.  We don’t become through trait envy, we become through practice.

If you need support for yourself or a team of leaders, we can help.  The Leadership Gym was built for that.  You, and they, have to do the work, but it starts with knowing that we are developing skills, not wishing for more innate abilities.

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