Much has been written about leadership, focusing mostly on attributes, usually explained as some combination of intelligence, initiative, confidence and vision. But this may be only half the story…or less even.
Some of the newest, most cutting-edge research integrates existing research with evolutionary analysis. This analysis involves a simple premise that what is adaptive survives over time, and what is maladaptive does not. But what does this tell us about leadership?
One of the first things, according to a recent article in American Psychologist, is that it makes no sense to study leadership without considering followership. The operating hypothesis in the paper “Leadership, Followership and Evolution: Some Lessons From the Past” is that the leadership/followership paradigm is a group-level adaptation. Suggesting that “leader and follower roles may be adopted flexibly by the same individual, because in some cases it pays to be the leader and in others to be a follower.”
For example, if the town hall, where the mayor is the leader, is on fire, it is the mayor who follows the firefighter out of the building, not vice versa. So, not having a title doesn’t keep you from leading and making a positive difference on the lives of people around you.
What does this mean for your career?
For one thing, don’t waste your money on leadership books and seminars that are all about me, me, me. Paper co-author Robert Hogan, Ph.D., President of Hogan Assessment Systems, says this focus on individual traits hearkens right back to Freud and is “perfectly irrelevant” to the leadership discussion. Leadership isn’t about your success alone, according to Hogan, “it’s about the performance of the group.”
Sure, there may be “threshold” abilities for leadership that are hardwired, such as a certain level of intelligence or extraversion, but these are often overemphasized. In fact, in a review of nearly 200 global companies and their star performers, psychologist Daniel Goleman found that social intelligence proved twice as important as any other factor in leadership. And social intelligence can be learned.
Second, the typical corporate structure isn’t your best friend. In fact, there may be what the authors call a “mismatch.” Suggesting that we continue to judge leaders based on “standards such as fairness, integrity, competence, good judgment, generosity, humility and concern for others,” while the corporate culture frequently rewards dominance and selfishness, “the antithesis of leadership.” Co-author Robert Kaiser, a partner in the consulting firm Kaplan DeVries Inc. and thought leader in the field of leadership, says that “[often] the very same qualities that qualify you as a leader are working against you in the race to the top of the corporate ladder.”
The result, as Hogan explains it, is that often an organization or division has an actual leader—the one who bands everybody together and gets things done—and a nominal leader, the one with a great title and a corner office. The challenge for an actual leader is to also become a nominal one. There are some strategies that could be useful to this end.
Play the Game…Better. A small company may not always be an option, but you can always “recognize the reality of how the game is played,” according to Kaiser. And the first step here is to identify the other players. Three to look for, according to Kaiser, are:
someone a level or two above you whom you can cultivate as a champion, the person who is making the big bet talent decisions in the company, and the climber who doesn’t care whose toes she steps on—avoid her.
The second step is to promote your leadership skills through your team. Acknowledge successes, and attribute them to the people working with you. It will be appreciated by your team, further justification for your champion’s faith in you, impressive to the talent decider, and a way to compete with the climber without openly making yourself an enemy. Practice your social intelligence skills. The reason why the American Management Association has highlighted books like Leading with Kindness and The Hard Truth About Soft Skills in recent newsletters.
Feel Entitled? Harry Truman is reported to have said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Then again, that’s easy to say when you are the one sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Job titles highlight the tension between our innate view of leadership and our social structures, especially in corporations. They are on business cards, office doors, organizational charts, SEC filings. Let’s face it, titles are often “used to define not only your responsibilities,” says Geevarghese, “but how much you’ll be paid.”
But if you have the ability to effectively lead and don’t have the traditional title, identify your own. You’re much more likely to influence your title in a small firm, and if you do, consider something short and clear. Put the emphasis on the effect you have on the team, not your title.
Short titles need not be boring. Danny Alexander designs packaging for Method. He is officially, “ShapeShifter,” which packs a little more punch than the title he might have elsewhere, Industrial Design Manager. The title “definitely helps open the dialogue [with others],” says Alexander, who notes that everyone at Method picks his or her own title. “The reason we have unique titles is not only because of the atmosphere it creates,” he says, “but because it eliminates some boundaries” among teams and talents.
Sound like a dream job? It may come as no surprise, then, that it’s culture is very much in line with the evolutionary leadership model: collaborative, under 250 employees and, says Alexander, “a company of friends rather than just colleagues.”
Whether you’re set on a small, group-oriented firm like Method, or a large, individual-oriented one like any number of global companies, remember that leadership means nothing without followership. It is less about intellect, ability and title, but more about being effective member of a group. Focus on the team and the positive effects you can contribute. “Focus on a purpose not a title,” Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ.