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Fitting in the frame - competent, authentic or both?

Recently, an overseas coaching client presented me with an interesting question relating to her own development as a leader and business partner. Would she do better, she wondered, to identify role models that she could learn from and emulate; or instead to invest in understanding and building on her own strengths?

I happen to believe – based on evidence of working in and with dozens of organisations – that leadership comes in all shapes and sizes: there is no one “model leader”. Indeed, the very idea runs contrary to the well-established principle that organisations benefit from diverse leadership, rather than monocultures.

The idea is that, if we can understand our strengths, be authentic and act congruently with our principles and values, then we will be at our best. We tend to think that it takes a great deal of effort to wear a constant mask: trying to be someone we’re not. Instead, we capitalise on our greatest strengths, and make these excellent; rather than concentrate on developing weakness into merely average performance. Associated with this idea is a respect for the strengths of others, which may be different from, and complement, our own.


This particular client’s boss demonstrated leadership strengths such as competitiveness, challenge and a willingness to speak up. These made her impactful in many situations. Her confidence in these strengths provided a core in which she could be at her best.

It also seems to be true that there are certain capabilities that all leaders need. One excellent presentation of these is found in research recently published by Glenn Wallis and David Pilbeam in “Leader ID”. They catalogue five factors that successful leaders need consciously to cultivate; and four behavioural areas that they need to master. They are “learnable skills”- things that excellent leaders have to learn to do. Furthermore, learning the wider repertoire allows us to be more flexible in our behaviour and better able to adapt our approach to changing circumstances.

In this view, while each of us has our unique and authentic leadership thumbprint, we also need to get better at all the elements of being leaders and doing the work of leadership. We may already be proficient at many of them; and there will be one or two that, at any point in time, we need to challenge ourselves over and work at with conviction. Like elite sportspeople, leaders need to know those areas where they are already winning, and practice those that will up their game.

I don’t think that means that we all end like some Frankenstein monster, confected out of the best bits of all the leaders who have come before. Not does it benefit any organisational to have a leadership toolbag full only of hammers, or for that matter only Swiss Army knives. Rather, it is useful to be reminded of the range of areas that we may want to work on: and be diligent in rooting out hidden strengths, blind spots, errant assumptions and unintended impacts. Robust feedback, well-chosen role models and evidence-based development frameworks can all enable us to make conscious and informed development decisions.

One consequence of the conversation with my client was that she gently presented some brave and useful feedback to her boss. The boss’s strengths in challenge and plain-speaking sometimes left little space for the client to offer her own ideas, and she needed her boss to dial that down if she was to grow. As a result, her boss provided opportunity more often to speak first in important meetings, and the client’s previously hidden analytical and critical thinking talents came through more often. She became more confident in the meetings, and even more consciously outspoken – taking a leaf out of her boss’s own book, while remaining true to herself.

The most powerful impact comes when we can integrate authenticity – the power of being ourself – with capability – learning from the best. That requires us simultaneously to know and use our unique strengths; and to work in a deliberate way on always getting better at this multi-faceted business of leadership.

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