Provision #745: Uniqueness Matters

Laser Provision

Last week I wrote about the importance of uniformity when it comes to leadership. The focus there was on the quality of processes and outcomes when it comes to goods and services. Leaders make sure that quality is consistently high. But there is no uniform way for leaders to get that message across. There are as many different approaches as there are leaders. Personality and individuality are not the enemies of leadership, they are its essence. This Provision finishes our meandering through the alphabet with some reflections on the importance of uniqueness.

LifeTrek Provision

Novice leaders are prone to try and emulate the leadership styles of others, and that may work, at first. Stealing a few plays from someone else’s playbook is a time-honored way of getting into any business. But the essence of leadership cannot be copied. It must come from the heart and always be authentic. We must, in other words, adapt what we learn so as to express it with our own unique style and voice.

That’s true in any human endeavor. How do we learn anything? It usually starts by watching. As infants we watch people walk until, sooner or later, we get the idea to try and walk ourselves. Then, we set about the business of figuring out for ourselves how to do it. No one teaches us how to walk. No one explains the biomechanics or establishes the standards. We just try and try again until we develop our balance and find our way forward.

What’s curious is how something as simple as walking expresses both uniformity and uniqueness. There are obviously more similarities than differences when it comes to bipedal motion. The biomechanics are pretty fundamental. But even here there is a lot of individuality. No two people walk exactly the same way.

You can test that assertion for yourself the next time you are in an airport or another public space. Watch people walk with a beginner’s mind. Sure, you will see people putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. But that’s about where the similarities stop and the differences begin. Some people are heel strikers, while others are forefoot or mid-foot strikers. Some lean forward while other stand erect or even lean back. Some swing their arms while others rock from side to side. Some swing their hips. Some walk fast, slow, and everything in between.

There is no end to the expression of uniqueness! And if that’s true for something as basic as walking, imagine how true that is when it comes to something as complex as leadership. Style matters and it’s important for leaders to both understand and embrace our style on the way to leadership effectiveness.

Understanding our uniqueness is an important part of the equation. Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” We could paraphrase that to say, “An unconscious uniqueness is not worth following.” No two leaders look the same or express ourselves in exactly the same way. There are short and tall leaders, thin and stocky leaders, left-handed and right-handed leaders, patient and impatient leaders, funny and serious leaders, task and relationship-oriented leaders, outgoing and quiet leaders, as well as gruff and charming leaders (to mention only a few possibilities).

What makes every leader effective, regardless of type or personal style, if we are effective at all, is that we understand our unique attributes and how those attributes effect other people. Equipped with that understanding, which represents a form of emotional intelligence, we can more consistently engage with people in ways that are both life-giving and performance-enhancing. We become, in other words, leaders who are worth following.

I have witnessed and coached leaders who lacked that understanding. They were too often unconscious of the effect they were having on other people. With an “I just gotta’ be me!” theme song, these leaders had uniqueness down pat. But without understanding, that uniqueness was alienating and destructive rather than endearing and constructive. As a result, things didn’t get done the way they or anyone else would have liked and their leadership eventually unraveled.

In their excellent work on resonant leadership, Anne McKee, Richard Boyatzis, and Fran Johnston identify three leadership myths that speak to this dynamic:

  1. Myth 1: Smart Is Good Enough. Not so, the authors write. Intellect and technical knowledge are the baseline but they do not differentiate great leaders. Emotional and social intelligence make the difference.
  2. Myth 2: Your Mood Does Not Matter. Wrong again. Bolstered by rich research from the field of cognitive behavioral neuroscience, the authors note that emotions are contagious and that a leader’s mood can either create resonance or dissonance in people and organizations.
  3. Myth 3: Great Leaders Thrive on Constant Pressure. The authors don’t deny that leadership involves a lot of sacrifice and stress. But great leaders know when to say when, adopting practices of recovery, release, and renewal.

Having identified the myths, McKee, Boyatzis, and Johnston spend most of their time focused on the ways leaders can increase both our self-understanding and our understanding of others. The two go hand-in-hand. Self-understanding is a prerequisite of all great leadership. We don’t have to jettison our uniqueness. We don’t have to become someone we’re not. But we do have to understand our personality and individuality if we hope to enlist those unique attributes in the service of desired outcomes.

Otherwise, we’ll just keep shooting ourselves in the foot without knowing how or why. And that’s no way to lead. The key to leadership is understanding who we are, what we value, and how we come across. Once those three are in place, then embracing our uniqueness is held at once more firmly and more lightly. Our uniqueness becomes something people embrace, enjoy, and forgive rather than reject, tolerate, and criticize.

I mention forgive because that is an important leadership dynamic. No leader gets it right all the time. Our uniqueness will inevitably rub some people the wrong way on some occasions. When that happens, that doesn’t mean that we should give up on our uniqueness. It means that we should apologize and learn better ways of using our uniqueness to get things done more happily for one and all.

Uniqueness, then, is not a static commodity. It is a fluid dynamic that weaves its way through the course of life. Great leaders know how to grow with, through, and beyond our uniqueness. That represents our lifelong journey, commitment, and pursuit both in relationship to our own uniqueness and to the uniqueness of others.

In all of his work on quality control, W. Edwards Deming makes clear that it is a key work of leadership to recognize and learn from unique people and events. First, of course, we have to know when someone or something is truly unique. That’s where Deming’s control charts come into play. They help leaders to recognize where someone or something falls in relationship to the standard deviations of the normal curve. There’s a natural degree of variation in every system and it’s best to not get too excited about that.

But when someone or something is truly unique, truly outside the normal limits of variation, then an opportunity has arisen that every leader should celebrate whether that uniqueness appears to be favorable or unfavorable. Exceptionally positive or negative events can be equally well leveraged for transformational change, both of individuals and of systems. They represent occasions for conversation that great leaders welcome and weigh in the continuing pursuit of excellence.

So that, in the end, is why and how uniqueness matters. Such diversity is the stuff of greatness. In leaders we call it charisma. In followers we call them capacities. Together, with mutual respect and understanding, we see them as generating the never-ending spiral dynamic of transformational change.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your unique qualities and abilities? How well do you understand them? How well do you leverage them both for your own growth and for the growth of others? How might your uniqueness become more life-giving and performance-enhancing? Who could serve as a role model for you in this regard?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

I loved your last Provision, “Uniformity Matters.” Thanks! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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