Save us from leadership conformity!

It would seem ridiculous to argue that one style of leadership is superior to all others.  Different situations require different approaches, and most people accept that organisations actually benefit from diversity.   But just how different can someone be, or do we still have a very narrow perception of what it takes to be a leader?

Gender is one area where difference regularly gets debated, particularly the difference in working styles that men and women offer.   Certain traits are regularly identified as being masculine and others as feminine.  In a recent article, How to Negotiate like a Woman, Susannah Breslin claims ‘when it comes to work, I’m more like a man than a woman.  I’m aggressive, competitive, and cut-throat’.   There is however a well-argued case that being more participatory, non-hierarchical, flexible and group-oriented, qualities traditionally associated with women, is exactly what modern organisations need.

Whenever there is an attempt to discuss an imbalance such as the predominance of men at the top of major organisations, there is a risk that appearing to argue the merits of those currently in the majority will attract condemnation.   The ever-readable Dan Rockwell identifies that while it seems OK to talk about Where Women Leaders are Better than Men, there is something uncomfortable if not inherently dangerous in discussing Where Men Leaders are Better than Women.

Other areas of leadership difference occasionally capture the imagination, such as the current discussion about the strengths that introverts offer.  Susan Cain for example makes a compelling case for the quiet and contemplative in her passionate TED talk.  This all certainly makes a change from the message most introverts have heard throughout their lives that if they want to get on, especially in leadership roles, they need to become more extrovert.

It is encouraging that these debates raise important issues about the benefits of some forms of diversity, even if there is still a long way to go.  The problem however is that the focus is often on relatively simple differences such as male/female or extroversion/introversion.  More complex distinctions such as cultural difference are less widely discussed, presumably because they do not lend themselves quite as readily to simple generalisations.

It is perhaps this tendency to generalise, to place things in neat simple categories, that limits our view of leadership.  The steady stream of articles, blogs and tweets listing the traits or behaviours shared by successful leaders only serves to encourage sameness rather than diversity.   The underlying message seems to be ‘develop these particular characteristics and you too can be successful’.

While it may be interesting to know what certain leaders have in common, there is far less written that celebrates their individuality, except in the case of a handful of maverick entrepreneurs.  Within most organisations, being too different seriously limits an individual’s prospects.  If we really believe that diversity enriches an organisation, we need to develop a broader vision of leadership, embracing people who fail to conform to our existing and rather narrow models.