One Common Thread of Great Leadership
What do Jacinda Arden and Elon Musk have in common? Not much at first glance, I will concede. What about Satya Nadella, Angela Merkel or Richard Branson? These public figures have significantly different personalities, purposes, and life paths but they have been largely hailed as successful in their respective endeavours.
What do they have in common? All of them have been in the right roles, at the right time in alignment with their core personal strengths. Their unique passion and style fit perfectly with the path they chose and the role they played within a specific context.
They include country leaders who brought incredible empathy and social skills at a time of fracture and crisis when their constituents needed to be led with the heart; or entrepreneurs who may lack social skills but bring a bold vision and an uncompromising drive; or again, company leaders who were able to bring dramatic change and agility to their organisation because of their inclusive leadership skills.
These women and men are public figures, but you don’t have to be one to find your personal path of success. The key to your success is to understand what makes you unique, what passion you bring to life and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Your personal suite of strengths will determine whether you thrive, not just in a role but also within a particular culture or context.
Context Matters To Your Success
Can you take your strengths too far? I don’t believe so. However, as an executive coach, I see many who bring their strengths in the wrong context and experience backlash that can damage their career or their mental health. I have so many examples.
These include visionary change agents in very conservative organisations who see the shifts ahead before others can and get frustrated that no one will follow them. If they stay in the wrong context for too long, I see them burn out in self-doubt as they are tarred with negative feedback and seen as aggressive and emotional.
Other examples include analytical, pragmatic and process savvy leaders who have been incredibly successful in their role for a long time but face heavy disruptions in their markets. Fundamentally not risk-takers, they are unable to make the right decisions. It is often too late to understand that the only way to succeed in these circumstances is to follow social instinct, which is not their strength.
On the other hand, people leaders who are passionate about creating high performing teams can experience downturn in their career if they join a culture that does not value what they have to bring. They dedicate their time and energy coaching others and creating purpose but are perceived as ineffective by senior management who would want to see them focused on the details of financial outcomes.
Can you develop other skills to adapt and deliver what is required for the role, the organisation, and the context? Yes of course. Growing, learning, and stretching outside your comfort zone are all critical ingredients in your recipe for success. And successful leaders in today’s world cannot ignore the complexity of their environment and the need to bring both style and mental agility to their role.
Three Steps To Knowing What You Love And How To Apply It
However, as you progress throughout your career, defining where you can do what you love is critical. You can love what you do but which role or which context will allow you to do what you love successfully? This is what I invite you to reflect on in three steps:
What typically gets you out of bed in the morning? Last week, which activities did you particularly look forward to? What were you doing when the time just flew by, and you felt effective?
These are the activities that give you a hint of your strengths. Identify categories or groups of activities and label them with what you love doing when you are in the middle of these tasks.
What are your personal core values? What would you never want to compromise? What leads your important decisions and choices?
Is it the love of learning or the courage to close a deal? Is it the responsibility to create a fair outcome for everyone or to protect the organisation against excess? Is it about providing support to others, bringing lightness, humour, and perspective to a team or is it about providing sound advice based on data analysis? If these are difficult to identify, you can take the VIA survey (a strengths identifier) here: Personality Test, Personality Assessment: VIA Survey | VIA Institute (viacharacter.org)
Finally, and most importantly, based on your answers in these first two steps, you then need to identify what you want to bring to a role that is absolutely unique to you and your passion. If your stakeholders were describing the value you bring, what would you like them to say?
This is essentially the expression of a value proposition, a signature strengths statement. You can seek help from a trusted mentor to help you identify this.
And of course, the most important and final stage in this reflection is the key question: can you do what you love and be successful in your role given the culture and the context of your organisation? This will never be clear cut but awareness of the pros and cons will help you bring clarity on two important career considerations: Where do you need to go next? What can you dial up or down in your current style or focus?