TRAITS refer to the belief that leadership requires certain innate characteristics, personal qualities, or attitudes. These are things like “charisma”, “true north”, “integrity”, and other ideals that don’t turn into actions. The simple rule of thumb for these things is, if you can’t see the quality in a person’s behavior, it’s a TRAIT and not really leadership. The truth is that all leadership is learned, and that all leadership leads to visible action. After all, if it was just something in our head, how could it have an impact on other people?
The myth of TRAITS comes about from that fact that everyone has preferences for certain behaviors. These preferences could be grouped in any schema you like – personality traits, values, introversion v. extroversion, and so on – but we all have things we feel comfortable doing.
Here’s the trouble with preferences: while some people are born with preferences that make them successful in leadership roles in the short term, in the long term our preferences make us likely to fail. As we take on increasingly challenging roles, we are more likely to find a situation where our preferences fail us. Don’t let your preferences limit your willingness to take on the challenges you want.
Also, like TITLES, successful leaders often mistake their success for values that they believe they exemplify. The process of learning isn’t visible, so they don’t recognize how they have learned to be an effective leader. Instead, they point to the things they think are shining aspects of their personalities, and tell others to emulate these qualities to be successful. Of course, these TRAITS aren’t the actual reason they succeeded, and we don’t want to mistake the TRAITS for true leadership.
How does this hurt us?
Believing that leadership is related to TRAITS hurts us in one obvious way: it makes us think that certain people are destined to lead, and that others will never be as successful because of who they are inside. You can’t fix how you were born, so this thinking suggests that if you aren’t already a successful leader, you won’t ever be. As we’ll see later, this is exactly opposite the truth, which is that leadership is learned over time, and that all leaders engage in this learning process whether they know it or not.
The other, more insidious way that TRAITS limits our potential as leaders is by making us focus on things that aren’t achievable. Rather than work from a problem or situation towards specific actions, we try to exemplify certain unachievable ideal characteristics. The people around us can’t see these things, and so we end up ignoring our actions and the relationships around us because we’re convinced that we have these ephemeral qualities. Remember, the important thing about any accurate description of leadership is that it helps us focus our attention on what will make us successful.
If someone comes to you with an idea about how to improve your leadership, test it by trying to see it as a behavior or an action. If you can’t see what it looks like in a specific situation in the real world, you are probably looking at a TRAIT.
Let me remind you of how the Three Ts, including TRAITS, fits into our larger understanding of leadership: once we exclude the things that aren’t leadership from our efforts, we’ll know where to focus our time and energy to produce true improvements in our leadership practice.
The final T, TACTICS, is next. TACTICS are fun because we see them all the time: 12 things you should do to be a better leader! I hope you’re enjoying this series, and learning a bit about what to exclude from your understanding of leadership. If so, don’t forget to sign up for our weekly emails so you get every bit of information you need to be the best leader you can.