Being YOU makes you a better leader

Latest of my monthly posts as one of the Marketing Society's guest bloggers.

There is no doubt that leadership is a red-hot topic. A search using
the term on returns a mind-boggling 167,396 books on the
subject. Most of this leadership advice urges us to change who we are
and how we behave to be a better leader, often by telling the story of
inspirational people, such as Richard Branson or Jack Welch. A similar
approach happens in the performance review processes of many companies.
The tendency is to focus on “areas for improvement” and the things you
need to fix.

Screen shot 2010-09-13 at 12.54.22 The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that most
of us don’t fundamentally change once we’ve hit adulthood. Sure, we
might learn new skills. But our character traits remain the same. If you
were a strong but rather dictatorial leader 20 years ago, chance are
you still will be today. One way to try this out for fun is to dig out a
performance evaluation from your first job. Or go back even further and
rummage in the loft or cellar to find a secondary school report.
Chances are you’ll find comments describing how you were then that still
ring true. Another issue is that our weaknesses are often flip-sides of
our strengths. I have a business partner who is highly creative, but a
bit disorganised. Trying to get him to be neat and tidy would be
counter-productive, as he’s unlikely to change fundamentally and this
move could even undermine his inventiveness.

An alternative leadership approach is to
focus on the good stuff. Rather than trying to change fundamentally who
you are, you celebrate your strengths, and use them to create your own,
distinctive leadership style.  The power of this approach is that your
leadership will be more authentic and so more believable.  You’ll stop
beating yourself up for failing to be the perfect, cookie-cutter leader
from the management books. And there will be much better alignment
between your words and your actions.

In reality, many successful business leaders who are portrayed as
perfect role models are far from perfect. Take this quote about one
famous CEO. “His management style tended toward throwing tantrums and to
berating employees who disagreed with his ideas. His habit of suddenly
changing his mind has also been given as part of the reason he is
difficult to work for.”  The leader in question is Steve Jobs of Apple.
Not perfect by any means, but his strengths in creativity, inspiration
and intuition have helped him be one of the world’s most effective
business leaders.

And what about those weaknesses? Rather than just ignore them
altogether there are two things you can do. First, you can try to
minimize them. You might never be the most confident public speaker, but
you can improve so you don’t lose sleep over doing a talk. Second, you
can get a buddy. The business partner I mentioned has a great PA who
manages his diary and admin, leaving him free to concentrate on leading
innovation projects.

Being a more authentic leader might not be a text-book route to
success. But I believe it will not only make your more effective, it
will make do no end of good for your self-esteem.