Breaking paradigms about leadership

24 June 2019

As part of the On Think Tanks Fellowship Program, one of the topics that I wanted to learn more about was leadership. In the process, I realized I had several preconceptions of what leadership meant and some of them were not entirely correct. I started to ask myself questions such as: How can I promote a change in my institution having an introverted personality? Isn´t leadership something for more extroverted people? Does the fact that I don’t have a position of authority prevents me from exercising leadership? What is necessary to be a leader?

The answer to all these questions is that there is not a unique recipe for leadership.

Leadership isn’t the sole preserve of extroverts

The leadership concept, especially in Westernized cultures is usually related to a set of characteristics. Our cultural heritage links leadership to extroversion, to being influential, charismatic and, perhaps, dominant. As Susan Cain points out in her book, we are a society that values an individual of personality more than of character,  a person of action rather than a person of contemplation.  These kinds of thoughts and conceptions lead us to think that quiet and introvert people are not leader material, but I’m glad to say that this is far from true.

We can all agree that normally extroverts have charisma, high power of influence on people and they are good at showing confidence and dominance, which are good tools for leading since people tend to trust and follow people with these characteristics. However, according to Susan Cain, introverts are actually also very effective leaders and often the most creative. She shows that, in fact introverts tend to show a lot of commitment, they listen to their teams and get better results than extroverts; also, they are often great at making good decisions. With the latter, I mean that introverts can be just as good leaders as extroverts with their own set of skills. In fact, one third of the population in the world is introverted, and we normally ask them to act as if they were extroverts, losing much of their potential in this process because we are losing authenticity.  If we cannot be ourselves, it’s most likely that we don’t work at our maximum potential.

You don’t have to be in charge to lead

Another preconception that we usually have is that leadership is necessarily linked to authority roles, such as being a manager, a boss or a director. We are used to expect that those who make decisions and find solutions are the people who have a superior position than us, which sounds quite logical. I’m also happy to have realized that having an authority role is not a requirement to be a good leader.  Often leadership comes from the legs of the table, as Roland Heifetz would say. He explains that being a leader without formal authority has some advantages that we normally don’t see such as having latitude for creative deviance, space to focus on one single issue and a closer place to have detailed experience of the people. All this makes the leader without authority win a larger perspective to make better decisions.

What leaders actually do

In the learning process, the definition about leadership that I found the most accurate was the one given by Roland Heifetz, which defines it as an activity that mobilizes a collective to do something, tear down problems or reach a common goal; it is related to actions more than words. In his book, he tells a set of stories in which he shows that normally in times of trouble we tend to look for answers in the wrong place; we look for a savior, a leader who can give us a good and easy answer. However, we need leaders who can make strong questions to us and make us part of the process to solve the problems. One of the most important ingredients- and I would dare  say the only one strictly needed for leadership- is passion that translates into actions. Characteristics such as charisma and authority are instruments, but they are not necessary conditions to exercise good leadership. The effectiveness of leadership depends a lot on our own convictions and how we transmit them to our team. These things can come from a wide range of people (extroverts or introverts) or from different job positions (apprentices, junior researchers, directors, board members, among others).

Anyone can be a leader

Many times, I’ve heard the phrase: “leaders are born, not made”. This is a very dangerous thing to claim because people who don’t have the ‘required kit’ to be a leader (following our preconceptions), could go unnoticed and not share their potential with their teams. There isn’t a unique recipe of personal characteristics to be a good leader.  Leadership goes much further. To mention some examples of leaders who were not great charismatic people or had formal authority when exercising leadership:  Mahatma Ghandi who led the Indian independence movement was actually characterized for his introverted personality and also not having a formal authority role in the government or other institution in India; Rosa Parks, also known as “the first lady of civil rights” was a regular woman with no elected office who then she became an inspiration and leader activist because of her resistance to segregation laws in the United States; and now Greta Thunberg, a young climate activist who has inspired the world for her conviction and bravery, is a school student who claims to be introverted and not so much of a talker. These leaders went up front because of conviction and passion, not necessarily because they liked to be in the spotlight or because they had a role of authority.

In the think tank context, we have to be able to multitask and be leaders in many situations. I am a researcher, but I have been in constant learning since joining INESAD. Sometimes I’ve had to learn how to manage events, help the communication´s department and also to manage projects. These situations were very challenging since they implied tasks that are not necessarily in my expertise area. I am sure this is a situation that many thinktankers experience, and this is normally because our work goes much further than doing good research. We normally get out of our comfort zone, and that is a sign that we have a lot of passion and commitment for what we do (a great ingredient for us to be leaders in our own ways). It is probable that researchers are researchers because of the type of personality they have, perhaps many of them are people who like their personal space and solitude. However, this does not mean they aren’t to be leaders. Researchers have strong academic knowledge and a great way to see a problem from all its perspectives, and they can contribute with out of the box solutions or efficient ways to reach objectives. On the other hand, many members in our organizations, are very young and in bottom positions of authority, who can provide innovative ideas and creative solutions. They also tend to have a great way managing technology and reach young audiences, just to give an example. The persons we have in our teams are diverse, and they can be leaders embracing their own characteristics.

I don’t want to say that extroverts or people with authority are not necessarily good leaders- they have many characteristics that can make them very effective at leading. What I’m saying is that we should embrace our diversities and get the most out of them, to strengthen our think tanks and make potential leaders, actual good leaders. There is a lot of value that is wasted if we don’t break down our paradigms.