Leadership, think again!

In the last few turbulent years, much has been said and written about leadership in Latin America. In the realm of politics, recent elections in a number of nations have been characterized by polarization and unpredictability. Populations appear to be increasingly torn and confused.

Election campaigns today are run largely on social media. This phenomenon can encourage voters to support candidates for the wrong reasons. Often, a person’s true character and values are less important than the image and style they project on the internet. Alas, many successful candidates are far better at selling their online hype than they are at actually leading.

The void of authentic leadership in government is a potential opportunity in the realm of business, particularly for young, nimble companies. In my view, Latin America’s future will belong to entrepreneurs and small company directors with both financial acumen and an ability to navigate shifting winds while remaining true to their core principles.

As such, I am pleased to be involved with Latin Trade and to write this column, “Leadership, think again”, because it is a good moment for us to question our views about what makes business leaders and entrepreneurs successful. The topic is of particular interest to me as well, since I have spent nearly three decades encouraging my students to “think again” about how they would like to influence their worlds.

Throughout my career as a professor, public speaker, and consultant, people have commented that my approach and perspectives on leadership are quite uncommon, unlike what they have seen and heard elsewhere.

When my audiences and clients ask about the origin of my views, I often tell them about the initial phase of my doctoral study at Newcastle University in the late 1990s.

At the outset of my reading period, the time to hone in on a specific subject for my thesis, what I knew was that I wanted to do something innovative in the realm of leadership. From the beginning of my search, my research director advised me not to look for a subject to explore, but rather to find a question that I really wanted to answer. This small piece of advice proved to be particularly astute, and extremely helpful.

In the end, I decided that the issue of most interest to me was a simple one: “Is it possible to find any elements—in their character, style or behavior—that a large percentage of outstanding leaders seem to share?”

While this query appears straightforward enough, trying to answer it becomes a complex and frustrating endeavor. As the renowned scholar James McGregor Burns once famously wrote, leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. Consequently, a multitude of theories abound regarding the traits that make someone an extraordinary person of influence.

In my initial months of study, I felt that the literature I was reading focused too heavily on the personalties, behaviors, and styles of the leader. While all of that made truly fascinating reading, it was difficult to make sense of it all, since one study would invariably contradict another.

For example, one top researcher demonstrated quite convincingly that authoritarian, outgoing narcissists made the best leaders. Then, a second scholarly article from a highly regarded source argued that outstanding executives tended to be humble and resolute, often introverts with high levels of emotional intelligence.

As I studied further, I started looking for other angles, hoping to identify something that went deeper than what I considered surface attributes.

As a challenge to myself and a way to advance in my thinking, I began playing a game in my mind, an exercise I came to call “unlikely pairs”. It consisted of choosing two celebrated and respected leaders who appear to have nothing whatsoever in common, at least in terms of personality, style and behavior.

For example, one of my pairs was the contentious narcissist Steve Jobs and the calm, soft-spoken unifier Nelson Mandela. Each time I considered two such diverse individuals, my goal was to uncover sources of success that were shared by both.

In the end, my little comparison game led to several discoveries that would become essential parts of my dissertation. Here is a brief description of three of those findings.

First, regardless of personality and style, all of the remarkable people of influence I studied possessed deep self-knowledge. By this I mean that they had clear concepts of “who I am”, “what I stand for”, and “how I see the world and my potential role in it”.

A second element I found in nearly every outstanding leader I identified was a certain form of self-expression. Independent of the power of their voice or their speechmaking ability, they speak from the heart about their deepest convictions, core beliefs and guiding values.

The third shared characteristic of the successful leaders I researched was neither a physical attribute nor a style but rather a mindset. Simply stated, they were people who were able to stay focused on the possibilities of a given situation, rather than dwell on limitations and constraints.

Ever since the days of my doctoral dissertation, these three concepts have been core components of much of the work I do—as a university professor, a consultant, and a public speaker. With my students and consulting clients, our discussions and exercises strive to develop depth of self-knowledge, sharpness in self-expression, and productive mindsets.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my journey has been working with a wide variety of individuals who make great strides in their personal development, and seeing how this growth has helped them on their career paths.

In future articles, I will explain how I help clients realize their potential in this areas.

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