Ah, look. Another leadership study. What can we learn?

Damn, leadership. You scary. (Family Guy reference.) Everybody seems to chase it, and everybody wants to be good at it, and there’s this belief that maybe in the coming generations the idea of being “a good leader” will actually have more importance than it does now, where the focus is more on deliverables and leaders can be shit and a company can still make oodles of money. (This happens every day; don’t deny it.) The jury is still out on whether “the millennial generation” will in fact command the “focus on leadership” changes that we’re predicting they might, but even if everything stays the same in Cubicle-Land for another 200 years (which it won’t, obviously), people should still want to be good leaders. There’s about 958 different approaches to leadership crafted every second, and if you hop on LinkedIn and do a quick scroll, you’ll find 17 different articles (all with a number in the headline) breathlessly explaining to you “The 19 Traits Leaders Must Have!” or whatever the fuck the editor decided to roll with. (On LinkedIn, you’ll see all those articles and then a bunch of people sharing JPEGs of inspirational quotes about leadership. Social media can be so powerful, but so often it just breaks my heart.) Point being, right — leadership is actually way simpler than we think it is, but we still fly people all over the world to attempt to quantify and enumerate it because, well, that’s human nature.

Here’s a new study on “traits that leaders have.” It’s from McKinsey — nice brand — and the main study is here, I once briefly summarized a similar study here, and Forbes wrote about the whole concept here.

Here are the four “main traits” of leaders, per this research:

  • Leaders are doers
  • Leaders seek diversity of thought
  • Leaders show support
  • Leaders solve problems

The guy who wrote the Forbes article added “Leaders recognize problems,” which is probably valid in the sense of “Well, you can’t solve a problem if you can’t at first recognize it’s there.”

My first problem here is that this is extremely buzzword-heavy; “doers” and “diversity of thought” and “solve problems” all sound like jargon. (“Solve problems” shouldn’t, but for some reason it does. That’s probably not a good thing.) I often feel that when people try to talk about leadership and fall into buzzwords galore, people that should be listening start tuning ’em out. That doesn’t advance the idea of “leadership development.” If you want people to understand a concept, you need to make the concept relatable to them. That’s pretty much what the “power of storytelling” is all about.

Alright, so taking this a step further … I think most people who are “leaders” (meaning they have a title that implies leadership) would look at themselves as doers and problem-solvers. Those are active designations, and people like to classify themselves there. I think that’s where most managers — “The 82 Percent,” perhaps — tend to fall in terms of self-perception.

Here’s what’s interesting: the other two skills. “Seeking diversity of thought” and “showing support” probably sound like something you hear at a two-day leadership offsite where mostly you’re just checking your e-mail and sometimes nodding. But they’re really fucking important.

The issue with “seeking diversity of thought” is this: people love to spend time with those like themselves, and that includes senior leadership teams. Every place I’ve ever worked, that level meets all the time with each other. That’s logical because they hold the most business responsibility, yes. But it also sucks because then the rank-and-file (and even the middle managers) are totally disconnected from how the decisions get made and the place is run. You know what that is? “Disengagement.” There’s been enough white papers written on that topic to gag a fucking horse, but it comes down to a basic idea: include other people. Seek a diversity of opinions and thought. Good ideas — and lo, even organizational breakthroughs — can come from anywhere.

The issue with “showing support” is the second leg of importance here. “Showing support” is basically about being respectful, which most managers have a serious problem with.┬áManagers often confuse “showing support” with “OMG I can’t be friends with my employees,” and that’s wrong. I like my current boss, right? We are not BFF but I feel like if I had an issue, she would be supportive. And I feel like she asks me questions about things outside of work, which is relevant. Again, not best friends — but your employees are more than just the sum of their work experiences. They’re actual people too. So support that notion.

The big problem for me with this McKinsey shit, then, is that you have these four essential categories but there’s a harsh dividing line, right? There’s two categories — “doers” and “problem solvers” — that all the terrible middle managers see themselves as, and they think the other two categories (“diversity of thought” and “support”) are dumb, soft skills. We need to move towards an idea around leadership where all four of these concepts have equal value — not to mention an idea about leadership where (a) it’s not a destination and (b) “what I want done” replaces “this is how you must do it.”

Ted Bauer

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