The Leadership Question I Most Dread
It involves a perspective we need to change about leadership.
I will tell you my least favorite leadership question. Promise. First let’s talk about one of my curiosities: salt. My curiosity began while sitting at the table watching my Grandpa pour salt on his food. It was his favorite flavor of all. Everything got a dash of salt. My fascination with this essential mineral grew. Today I love salt in many forms.
There are ten kinds of salt in my place right now. A black coarse volcanic type from Iceland perfect for hard-boiled eggs, a salt and pepper mix that goes on our fried eggs every morning, a flake salt to sprinkle when cooking, a coarse type in a grinder for salads, lemon salt for chicken, Maldon salt to top desserts. Four aren’t edible. There's one for soaking, one for plants, a lamp made of salt, and a halite stone, a natural form of sodium chloride that forms isometric crystals.
We often associate this mineral with Morton Salt, the world’s largest salt company. This is because of Joy Morton, a former railroad employee who in 1889 decided to get into the salt industry. He invested his entire life savings in a small salt distribution company. Though new to the business, Morton took to entrepreneurial life. By the 1920s mass production brought efficiency and uniformity to the manufacturing process, allowing Morton to create consistently sized salt crystals.
Aside from great marketing, the popularity of Morton Salt rose from the idea that uniformity was the most desirable. Though these uniform crystals are still used, especially in baking where precision is required, more organic shapes have become more common. We can see this in salt grinders and plentiful varieties like Himalayan, Maldon, and more. Trends change. This is similar to leadership. You knew I’d bring it back there right? All roads lead back to leadership in my world.
Our ideas about what it means to be a good leader have evolved over the years. A prominent theory of leadership is that history can be understood through the impact of superior men. This is known as the great man theory popularized by historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. It rests on the tenet that certain men have innate qualities that make them unquestionable leaders. There’s a strong heroic masculine quality to all this. A feeling of leading being destiny, not questioned accompanies this line of thinking. This idea is largely out of favor but this ethos still exists especially in certain circles.
The great man theory is the source of my most dreaded question… Are leaders born rather than made?
It’s the old nature vs nurture argument. As you can imagine, I disagree with the nature argument. My work, especially Leadership Archetypes, pushes against this type of thinking. Leadership as destiny rewards a certain kind of person. This leaves out many other important voices and contributions.
Today there’s support for other styles like servant leadership, focused on serving. These approaches are more altruistic than autocratic. It's heartening as someone with a non-traditional style (according to the classic stereotype). Changing our perspective opens opportunities for people we wouldn’t have called leaders in the past — those who didn’t fit the so-called pattern.
I recently spoke with a leader 20 years into their career. Their style of leading focuses on getting results through people. Rather than stand in the front with a megaphone, they prefer an inclusive style of decision-making. Behind the scenes, they spend hours helping level up the capacity of others. Despite getting results, several bosses told them to change their style — to be tougher, stronger louder. Bosses told them to push harder. No pain, no gain sort of thinking. Even though uncomfortable, they tried to emulate this strategy with little success. It took the leader many years to push these opinions aside and lean into their own style. Eventually, they found a company that saw the value in what they offered. My heart breaks when I hear these stories. They come up far too often.
Telling leaders to push hard and be tough is bad advice for the person and the team. It speaks to the idea that there’s one way to lead. That real leaders are bold like a hero riding into battle on a horse with a sword or maybe a musket. If everyone is loud, strong, and opinionated, we end up with a bunch of people competing with each other. Sure, you can get outcomes this way but the path includes unnecessary friction. Even worse, this mindset impacts who gets to lead, excluding people who don’t fit the profile. This is a real shame.
There isn’t one way to reach an outcome. Many paths can get us there. A sea of sameness isn’t the best way to lead a modern organization. Difference is a powerful multiplier that brings results. Plenty of research backs this up.
Yes, continue to grow and evolve. Still, avoid listening to advice that says you need a personality transplant to lead. Or that you can’t lead because you don’t look or act a certain way. This is a harmful stereotype. The pressure can lead to burn out. Find places and situations that value what you offer. You might have to look a bit but you’ll find them.
If you want to read more about the Great Man theory, here’s an interesting paper that looks at it from Freud’s work on leadership.
Until next time, be well.
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