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Nature versus Nurture and the hidden influences on the leaders we become

Joseph Perez on Unsplash
"Describe the best boss you have ever had and why."

This was the question the former Metropolitan Police hostage negotiator asked my group. We were attending an after-work evening event to find out why improving our ability to listen is crucial to better work relationships and building more effective teams. Listening and why it is an underrated leadership skill is something that I have written extensively about previously.

The former police officer had suggested we ask this question when interviewing job candidates. The reason for asking the interview question has stuck with me to this day. People will unconsciously describe themselves when answering this question and paint an accurate picture of what they are like as leaders and managers. They will highlight their values and what they find rewarding and pay attention to or what they dislike and hence avoid. Their response will provide insight into the person's unconscious biases that influence their decisions when leading people, projects, and making decisions.

Those values, attributes and behaviours that they so admire in "the best boss" will likely come from their observations and experiences during their careers and life to date. How we experience and want to understand the world around us shapes us into who we are today.

Want to know the best part?

People can learn the skills and capabilities to become better leaders. Before I introduce a theory on how life experiences and the world around us shape our values and beliefs, let's first quickly recap on inherent personality traits and why different leadership styles are more or less effective depending on the business need.

Leaders aren't born. They are made.

Claims that great leaders are not made, they are born, have been around for decades. And more recently, they certainly make Twitter-friendly headlines. But it is much more complex and nuanced than saying your DNA will determine your leadership capabilities. Inherent traits such as those commonly assessed by the "Big 5":

  1. Openness

  2. Conscientiousness

  3. Extraversion

  4. Agreeableness

  5. Neuroticism

can play a role in leadership potential. For example being ambitious, curious and sociable are three characteristics that studies say will give a better chance to develop as a leader. However, more often than not, research and studies trying to identify the secret sauce behind the most successful leaders will be contradictory as leadership success depends on situational context - one type of leader or one leadership style doesn't work in all scenarios. In fact, developing the capabilities to seamlessly move from one approach to another depending on the business situation is a powerful demonstration of higher-level leadership skills.

Situational context and the ability to adapt.

Different leadership styles work best in particular circumstances, and like any over-used strength, some have severe negative implications for team and organisational culture as they overly focus on short-termism at the expense of the future. Most people will have a default leadership style that our formative years and events will have shaped.

I like to use Danial Goleman's continuum of leadership styles to compare and contrast the difference in approaches. Whether it is the pacesetting leader, great in a crisis or when leading a highly motivated team of subject matter experts, or an affiliative style that is best when overcoming internal conflict and regaining trust within a team. Recognising when to use one style over another is key to being an enduring leader who can work effectively across different groups, organisations and business cycles.

A table showing the six styles of leadership ranging from Coercive through to coaching.

The complex product of personality traits and environmental influences determines whether an individual has more chance to occupy senior leadership positions and be successful. And it is the environmental influences throughout our lives that have been and continue to subtly shape the way we see the world and those around us and hence the type of leaders we become.

Personal constructs

Personal construct theory suggests that people develop personal constructs about how the world works. People then use these constructs to make sense of their observations and experiences.

The world we live in is the same for all of us, but how we experience it is different for each individual. For example, imagine that you and your friend are going for a walk in the park, and you spot a large brown dog. You immediately see a graceful and adorable animal that you would like to pet. On the other hand, your friend sees a threatening animal that she wants to avoid. How can two people have such a different interpretation of the same event?

According to psychologist George Kelly, personality is composed of the various mental constructs through which each person views reality. Kelly believed that each person was much like a scientist. Just like scientists, we want to understand the world around us, make predictions about what will happen next, and create theories to explain events. What makes these constructs so important? Because according to Kelly, we experience the world through the "lens" of our constructs. These constructs are used to predict and anticipate events, determining our behaviours, feelings, and thoughts. Check out the excellent verywellmind for more details.

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

Soren Kierkegaard. Danish philosopher and theologian

With this understanding and an open mind, we can use tools to raise our awareness of the relationships that have most influenced the way we see the world and hence how we turn up in the workplace. With a better awareness of why we act the way we do, favour certain characteristics and behaviours, and avoid others, we are better equipped to make conscious choices and enduring change. And cast a spotlight onto some of our unconscious biases that may adversely impact our performance at work.

Coaching using constructs

An experienced executive coach will be able to work with you to tease out your constructs which become your leadership values and beliefs system. Continuing Kelly's scientist metaphor, which has people acting as scientists who experiment with the hypotheses formed from life experiences, then the coach is like a research consultant. The coach will offer structure and support in designing better experiments and facilitating the creation of new ideas and options. The aim is to identify what changes you will make due to the increased self-awareness and insight into your values and beliefs system. Change such as:

  • Something I would like to do more of or start to do.

  • Something I am going to stop doing.

  • Something I have learned about why certain people bring out the best or worst in me.

  • Something I will do to work on some of my more challenging relationships.

Advice for aspiring leaders

Leadership skills can be learned. The will and discipline to continue learning and practising and the courage to continue striving after setbacks and failures are the essential and productive character traits that need to be cultivated.

The most successful people understand a simple truth: we need an edge to succeed and differentiate or risk marginalisation, as our skills and knowledge steadily lose value.

Continuously learning can be expensive in terms of time and effort, but standing still and not furthering one's personal development costs a fortune.

Coaching can help - MAKE A BIGGER IMPACT.


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