Why People Don’t Want to Find Your Leadership Uniqueness

The point of the CBS Money Watch blog post this week is that, to be a leader, you have to find your uniqueness.  That’s a process of scratching and picking, of thinking and reflecting and feeling.  The action step is “be curious and look where you don’t want, at parts of you that you’d rather ignore,” like your disabilities and aspects you don’t like.

I’ll offer a few more practical steps at the end.  But first, it’s vital that you see why the advice this week isn’t popular in the multi-billion dollar leadership industry.  Unless you are inoculated from the claims of some in this group, you can start to believe that a standard process can transform you into a leader.  It can—a mediocre leader, that is, who is a cheap knock-off of a thousand others.   Seeing how the industry became a victim of its own success will prevent you from falling victim to bogus claims and programs that distract you from the real work of developing yourself as a leader.

Demand has turned most leadership development programs into profit centers (or revenue centers, in the case of universities and other nonprofits).  As in any business, growth isn’t optional.  Programs and publishers need to bring in more people, have them pay more money, or become customers for longer periods of time.  And if they can bring their friends and family along, all the better.

The result?  One good leadership program deserves another.   If you take program x, then program y will make you even more “leaderly.”  And if you sign up for personal coaching, you could be running a company in no time.  And if you watch these 47 DVDs in your spare time, you can turn your company into the next Apple.  And these flashcards, on sale at the back of the room, will remind you to be a leader every day.

As I wrote last year, the desire of so many to become leaders has pulled many who know nothing about the field into it.  And before long, many have their array of products and their large paychecks.

With demand comes the onslaught of experts. Expertise is great in auto mechanics, IT, or turning bricks into buildings.  Leadership development requires finding your own path that others will follow.  An expert is likely to point out others’ paths, or offer advice that sounds good, but distracts you from the deep personal searching you need to do. I once introduced Warren Bennis to a group by highlighting the difference between an expert and a master.  Ask both a question, and the expert will answer it.  A master will kick out a chair, ask you to sit down, and say, “that’s a great question, let’s discuss it together.”  We need more leadership masters (like Bennis), and fewer experts.  Experts highlight a process, or tell you what they think.  Masters encourage you to find your own answers, and perhaps suggest that there are no good answers.

Experts need something for which they have expertise, and often, that’s a statistical tool with a fancy name, often followed by a trademark symbol, that shows you your answers measured against thousands or millions of others.  These tools do offer insights, but there’s also a trap here.  Assessments are easy, and the answers seem satisfying.  So how about another assessment, and then another, and another.  Or pay more and have the system unlock your hidden answers.  I have entire boxes of assessments about me in storage.  Some seem accurate, others seem like a computer wrote the answers in consultation with people who write technical manuals in Chinese and translate them into English.

Assessments are great, if done in moderation.  Take anything too seriously in the leadership development world and you become a follower, not a leader.  Too many assessments make you self-obsessed.  Too much exploration of your aspirations makes you sound like you’ve done a lot of drugs.  Too much reading makes you an authority on a subject that needs fewer authorities.  And, lest I fall in the same trap, too much examination of your disabilities and the parts you hate about yourself can make you a victim trying to write a bad screenplay about how every cloud has a silver lining of leadership advice.

So what do you do?  First, you do all of this, even the work about which I’m throwing a flag on the field.  Take classes, and processes, and assessments.  Learn from them.  Meet with experts—there’s something you can take from their expertise.  If you’re lucky enough to find a master, say a prayer of thanksgiving and learn.  And then realize that as Yoda said to Luke, “time to go it is.”

Keep a journal.  But don’t become a journal junkie.

Try things you read, but don’t do the leadership tip of the day for more than two days in a row or people will think you’re weird—and weirdos don’t get followers.

Review your life.  Make a collage if you own glue and don’t mind chopping up a magazine.  But don’t confuse the collage with a leadership plan.

If you’re so inclined, explore your past lives, listen to God’s voice, commune with nature, meditate.  For that matter, take up sailing, lose 10 pounds, refinance your house and get a pet.  See if those miracle abs machines you see on late night cable actually work.

In other words, the way you become a leader is to live, with curiosity, reflection, and wonder.  Experience more.  People who tell you to just do the program they’ve taken have either been won over by an expert, or are trying to make converts for a single system of thought. Be nice, listen to the sales pitch, buy if it feels right, but eventually, walk away.  Most systems are optimized for sales, not leadership creation.

Eventually, something will grab you, and the feeling may be unpleasant.  It might start as a dread on the edge of your consciousness that you can ignore at first.  It may advance on the center of your attention like an invading army, re-doing the landscape as it wills.  Bennis talks about this phenomenon in “Learning Some Basic Truisms About Leadership” by quoting James Franck.  Franck noted that a moment of discovery can be identified by, “the feeling of terror that seizes me.”

No two epiphanies are the same, but don’t be surprised if they come across something like:

  • Everything I try fails, and it’s only spin that makes me believe it’s successful.
  • I manipulate people.
  • I’m more of a taker than a giver.
  • People don’t really know me because I don’t let them.

Epiphanies aren’t true, but they also aren’t false.  They are always great teachers.  Often, they make you aware of the cost of some behavior.  As a result of the lessons they bring, you might feel a desire to leave something behind, like an obsessive focus on yourself, or a style of interacting with people that uses them, rather than empowers them to do great things.

Leadership is a process of adding knowledge, insights, and techniques.  It is also a process of removal—of knowledge that no longer has value, insights that perpetuate ineffective behavior, or techniques that are more costly than you realized.  The process never ends.  Warren Bennis told me that he has learned some of the most important insights about leadership in his 80s.

As you become a great leader, remember that the best leadership of all happens by helping others see their capabilities, and giving away the credit. As Lao Tzu said about such remarkable people, after their work is done, people will say “we did it ourselves.”    If anyone ever says that in regard to your leadership effort, you’ve done well.


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