No matter what industry you reside in, everyone is on the look out for natural leaders. The demand is so high that behavioral interview questions sometimes settle on any form of leadership trait, even in roles that don’t demand leadership. The qualities of leaders and followers are a fact of science; a Live Science article quoted Richard D. Arvey, head of the department of management and organization at the National University of Singapore, who said, “Think of [genes] as working through personality, intelligence, cognitive skills and also some physical characteristics. All of those are involved and correlated with who becomes a leader.”
Problems can ensue from overly relying on a limited set of characteristics to determine what a leader is, though. Often times, we associate leaders with outgoing, forceful personalities. When a person doesn’t exhibit this sort of personality, we can be quick to dismiss them as passive bystanders. Rather, we have to look more deeply into what exactly the makeup of a leader is. There are various types of leaders. These leaders can be great leaders in one context and bad leaders in another.
Take, for example, Steve Balmer. His gung-ho personality can do well to inspire those under him, but when an aging company continuously fails to address its dirth of innovation(ie Microsoft), that same personality can play falsely on the ears of subordinates; you can’t always put a smile on continuous failure when there’s a lot at stake.
On the other hand, you can argue that it’s that energy that allowed Balmer to display his leadership skills when Microsoft was conquering the software market decades ago. An energetic leader can have a lot of success in a startup environment, where setbacks and pitfalls constantly threaten moral.
However, when a company needs to be rescued, a pragmatic leader can open up new avenues for revenue. Take Satya Nadella, who replaced Balmer as Microsoft’s CEO. Since his arrival, he steered Microsoft towards the lucrative cloud service business that has surpassed Google and Amazon. Now, Microsoft is valued as the richest tech company. Yet, the news is greeted with surprise. How can someone who doesn’t have a dashing personality perform such a feat? A Bloomberg cover piece of Nadella, written by Austin Carr and Dina Bass, sums up the stigma some have towards mild-mannered leaders: “It’s telling that Microsoft continues to instill such feelings in competitors even with mild-mannered Nadella at the helm.”
The sentence presupposes that a company will most likely not dominate its competitors if the leader of said company doesn’t have stereotypical leadership traits. The author of the article goes on to say, “His self-effacing, if not bland, style is what Microsoft, a bureaucracy crippled by egos and infighting, needed.”
It’s this context that truly made Satya an excellent leader for Microsoft. From reading about the way Satya comports himself through the highs and lows, you notice the consistency that he displays, another important skill that can sometimes be mistaken for blandness. His “self-effacing” quality is a crucial trait in the world of tech.
Unlike other industries, advancements in tech may mean adopting a completely new paradigm in two years just to keep up with competitors. At the same time, a tech leader has to have the self-discipline to be able to know which rabbit to chase. All of these qualities can be part of the makeup of a person who is reserved, one who doesn’t exude the obvious traits of leadership.
When we understand the context that certain leaders can thrive in, there doesn’t have to be an over-emphasis on results. Amazon’s leadership page mentioned being “right, a lot” as one of the signs of a leader.
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Though the following copy clarifies what it means to be “right a lot”, the message can be misleading. Yes, being right a lot is great for meeting personal KPIs, but how does being right a lot effect the team? Meaning, does the leader bully others to conform to their perspective, or did being right come from promoting a proposal from a subordinate? Those with dominant personalities may be seen as bad leaders when commanding a room full of smart people. Whereas, leaders who leverage the talent around them at the expense of their own ego may be seen as good leaders.
The point is, leadership ability is difficult to pin down in a single behavioral interview. Anecdotes make for interesting conversation pieces, but until you see how the candidate interact with your specific culture, it will be hard to determine his/her leadership ability.