In the past, I’ve been complimented on my leadership skills. Letters of recommendation and feedback from mentors and supervisors called me a “natural born leader,” a title that, until recently, I was happy to accept without hesitation or reflection. As a doctoral student in developmental psychology, however, studying effective leadership, among other things, I’ve come to realize that there is no such animal as a “natural born leader.” In fact, as Warren Bennis, a pioneering leadership scholar, once said: “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born…That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” Leadership, then, is not a trait, as others’ well-meaning compliments led me to believe. It is a skill. And it is a skill that I can, through continued study and effort, develop, and it is a skill that I should not simply stop fostering when I succeed at gaining some position of leadership.
In truth, leadership is a set of skills. In fact, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman (2000) describes leadership as a collection of six styles or golf clubs a pro has to choose from. These styles include coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching leaders. To be the best leader possible, I need to work on developing multiple skills, as well as on honing my eye so that I can properly assess which leadership tool will help me “hit the green” in a given situation. I am most interested in becoming an effective leader in an academic setting—reaching and engaging my students as well as guiding, but not puppeteering, them as they create their own projects and follow their own insights. For these goals, I will focus most on the coaching, affiliative, and authoritative leadership styles proposed by Goleman. I must also learn to limit the influence of the pacesetting style I sometimes see in myself, as research shows it lowers team morale. There have been times when, conferences looming on the horizon and time running out, I simply “took over” for research mentees, simply doing whatever needed to be done for their research poster to meet a printing deadline myself. While this makes meeting the short term goal easier, it doesn’t help my mentee become a better research or myself become a better mentor, thus serving neither of our long games in the end.
Ultimately, I want to be able to create an environment where students (and collaborators) feel comfortable and valued for sharing ideas, but also challenged to come up with ways to improve what we do. Students shouldn’t feel scared to share their concerns or ideas with me. They should also feel convinced enough of my concern for their ultimate success and well-being to be comfortable with any final decisions I make. Finally, I must always consider the “why” of what I’m doing and make sure that those under my leadership understand the larger “why” as well. My team members need to know that there is a reason for what I am asking them to do, and that the part they play in doing it is important. This will encourage them to feel valued and loyal to the project. For example, I know my statistics students are often initially frustrated by the minutiae of formatting and citing analyses that I require of them for their homework assignments. However, once I explain that my goal is to teach them to follow the specific format guidelines which will be given to them by journal and to help them learn skills which will help them disseminate their own research, not simply pass my lab, they often become much more enthused. Some are even grateful to have such detailed instruction to help them avoid getting bogged down in one of the sand traps specific to our discipline.
A recent article by Forbes (Lipman, 2014) cited self-awareness as the most important quality of good leadership. While it’s important to be knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of my team members, it’s equally as important to acknowledge my own strengths and weaknesses. As a leader, I bring certain skills and competencies to any team I lead. But when I admit my weaknesses, I can both take opportunities to build my competencies and recruit team members to supplement my skills with their own, creating the strongest organization possible. Also, by setting an example of self-awareness, I can encourage others to practice being more aware themselves. In this way, we foster a culture of openness, where we seek to value our strengths but also the strengths of others. Contrarily, failure to practice self-awareness contributes to tunnel vision and a failure consider and promote the overall vision of a group. This is just one of many things that could contribute to conflict.
Historically, I have not been a big fan of conflict. It makes me nervous. And I’ve always felt that effective leadership is defined by a lack of conflict. Psychologists and educators Kegan & Lahey (2001), however, point out that conflict itself is neither dysfunctional nor dangerous. The problem lies in addressing conflict in ways that promote power gaps and discourage both leaders and followers from taking a growth mindset (e.g., in the case of a supervisor who insists on maintaining a strict hierarchy of management and/or only encourages team members to work within their job descriptions, instead of encouraging them to share ideas with him or to attempt to grow projects with one another),Instead of trying to suppress conflicts, I attempt to address issues through deconstructive criticism and creative abrasion. Deconstructive criticism involves challenging the idea that, in conflict, one person is “right” and one person is “wrong” and it is the job of the person who is “right” (usually assumed by default to be the leader) to somehow correct the other person and bring them to the “correct” side of things. Instead, with deconstructive criticism, both parties approach with mutual respect and understanding, acknowledging the possibility of different perspectives and being willing to learn from one another. Creative abrasion describes two people take advantage of their differences to come up with a myriad of ideas, using healthy debate to create something wonderful from multiple points of view (Cook, 2014). By using these two strategies, instead of avoiding conflict because it makes people uncomfortable, I can use conflict to develop more productive and higher quality teams.
Similarly, I’ve also been guilty of discussing working with diverse groups in terms of avoiding problems. That is, successfully leading diverse teams is sometimes couched in terms of having certain demographic distributions within your team and managing to work with that group without causing offense or being seen as insensitive. Hyun & Lee (2014) suggest that, instead of seeing diversity as a potential for conflict, I should instead take it as an opportunity. I don’t want to simply have diverse team members. I also want to encourage those team members to be engaged and utilized to their fullest potential. To do this, I must stay both self-aware of my background and how it drives my leadership behavior and willing to learn more of others’ backgrounds and to change my leadership style as needed. My favorite microcosm example of diverse groups comes from my latest obsession: escape games. These are scenarios where you are “locked” with up to 9 strangers in some themed room and must solve riddles and puzzles in an attempt to escape within an hour. Though I usually go with friends, we typically end up with some “new friends” as well. Which means we have to figure out how to work together—quickly. I’ve worked with some diverse groups in my attempts to conquer all the escape games in the Southeast, and the skills discussed above come in handy, even in as short a time as sixty minutes. In the real world and in the long term, I must continuously push myself to do this. Hyun & Lee call this mindset “flexing,” but I like to think of it as adding a new driver to my golf bag.
No matter what aspect of leadership I have studied, the importance of the situation continues to critical. The myth of the “natural born leader” suggests that leadership is a trait that manifests in one “right” way to lead. But, the research (and my personal experience) clearly shows that leadership is best developed d by fostering a diverse set of skills. I recently experienced that when several members of my research lab attended a national conference on adolescent development. Several undergraduate and graduate students from our lab presented research, and they made us all very proud. Watching them, I could see a culmination of my leadership efforts of several years—fledgling attempts at coaching, self-awareness, conflict management, deconstructive criticism, creative abrasion, and creating a common vision all coming to fruition. In my mind, I could hear the sound of a ball dropping gently into the cup. Moving forward, I will continue improving my abilities in these different leadership skills and always consider the context of a given leadership task. Over time, I’m hopeful that my bag full of “leadership clubs” will only continue to grow more crowded and that I will become ever more skilled at judging the terrain so that my teams are always able to aim for a birdie.
- Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership the gets results. Harvard Business Review, 78-90.
- Lipman, V. (2014). Why the best leaders are self aware. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2014/09/16/why-the-best-leaders-are-self-aware/#62ee04a87d61.
- Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
- Cook, G. (2014). How to manage a creative organization. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-manage-a-creative-organization/?print=true.
- Hyun, J. & Lee, A. S. (2014). Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences. Harper Collins: New York, NY.