Ray is viewed by many outsiders to his organization as an ideal leader. He is technically competent, avuncular, ambitious, enthusiastic, sociable, and decisive. Ray has a reputation of having good intentions and a resume indicating many desirable leadership characteristics. Even Ray’s subordinates and colleagues like him. The problem is they hate his leadership. . . more specifically, they hate his leadership behavior. Ray asks everyone all at once for their recommendations in long, tiresome, brainstorming meetings. He makes decisions about which recommendations to enact and announces his decisions via e-mail (usually on Friday afternoon) without explaining his rationale for his choice. He only delegates tasks to his subordinates. When others outside of his team appear to have concerns, Ray frequently fails to ask any questions and tells his subordinates to stay focused on the objectives. As one of Ray’s employees says, “Sure, we get things done on time. But we don’t learn anything. I don’t get anything more meaningful out of working for Ray than I would from working for any other vaguely competent manager. Our customers don’t get warm fuzzies from working with him either. He just is. . . uninspiring, you know?”
The reality is that it just isn’t enough to have good leadership characteristics. In fact when you look at the last eighty years and thousands of pages of advice on what makes an ideal leader you will see a host of conflicting characteristics. Why has so much research failed to articulate a consistent model of effective leadership? Because princely leaders can still exhibit poor leadership behaviors, while even a pauper of a leader can exhibit effective leadership behaviors in a critical and memorable situation.
While we are data rich (and probably because we are so data rich and have to sift through and interpret so much information), our modern work world is full of situational complexity and ambiguity. Leaders who manage complex and ambiguous situations well are memorable and sought after. As a result, models of effective leadership that rely on specifying what behaviors enable leaders to manage complex and ambiguous situations well are a better answer today than lists of effective leadership characteristics.
The good news is that anyone, of any personality, can learn effective leadership behaviors. Sure it is harder for some of us, who are for example more introverted, to learn some of these behaviors but we still can learn to do them when we need to be an effective (and inspiring) leader. Here is a small taste of some of the behaviors our research supports help leaders manage complex and ambiguous situations across industries:
- Verbally offers recommendations and the rationale for those recommendations
- Asks questions whenever any team member appears unsure or concerned
- Directly invites others to question and add to rationale
- Delegates authority for responsibilities (not tasks) proactively
Thanks to research, we also know the most enduring way to learn teamwork and leadership behaviors: through experiential training, guided practice, facilitated debriefings, coaching, and mentoring. Don’t let the bull about characteristics of effective leadership drag you down into the muck. You can learn leadership behaviors that work even if you’re not so avuncular.