What is your definition of leadership? Take a moment to write it down. Now, what are some traits of an effective leader? Jot these down as well.
Chances are, without looking in a dictionary, you came up with something about a person guiding a group toward a common goal through proper motivation and influence.
Traits may include being an effective communicator, open-minded, strategic, problemsolver, caring, understanding, hard-working, the list could go on.
Those are common responses in leadership development seminars, and there are almost always similarities, yet differences. These differences are important and what we’re going to focus on today.
If you’ve ever visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City you’ve likely seen the painting titled, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning,” by Spencer Finch.
It is a collection of 2,983 watercolor squares for the victims of the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001. Artists were asked to paint the color of the sky that day. What they got was a mosaic of hundreds of different shades of blue. They were all blue, but all were a little different.
Leadership is the same way.
The implicit leadership theory tells us that leadership is in the eye of the beholder. Essentially, everyone sees leadership a little differently, and to be an effective leader you must adapt to the environment.
Think about it for a moment. What might influence that leadership lens?
Culture instantly stands out and in fact there is a culturally endorsed implicit leadership theory as well. The same leadership traits that work and are valued in the United States may not be the same as in China, Mexico, or Germany.
Generational differences and upbringing can also influence that lens. Baby Boomers and Millennials see the world differently based on their upbringing and that also shows in their leadership preferences.
Someone’s personality style can influence that as well. Introverted people may value certain traits and view leadership differently than extroverted people. Different industries value different traits more than others.
In fact, I’ve seen this firsthand. Leadership expectations were drastically different in the military than in an educational setting. Now that you think about it more, you’ll probably find other places where that leadership lens varies as well.
So why does this all matter?
One of the primary objectives of leadership is to connect with people so that you know what motivates them and in turn know how to influence them. With a diverse workforce and globalization making working across boundaries commonplace, to be successful in leadership you have to be flexible and able to adapt.
In order to do that, you have to take time to think about these factors from your follower’s perspective.
Just as the golden rule — treat others as you want to be treated — is outdated and has been replaced by the platinum rule — treat others as they want to be treated — leadership also is about leading others as they want to be led, not how you want to be led.
By understanding that, you’ll be able to connect with your team no matter what cultural background or upbringing they have and no matter what their personality style is or what industry they come from, and when you can connect with them you can better motivate and influence them to achieve results.
Jim Servi is founder and president of JAMPS Strategic Development and a PhD candidate in business with a research focus on leadership.