Leadership Model: the Default Perspective

July 9, 2019
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Leadership Model

By the time most executives reach the C-suite, they have received dozens of performance reviews and undergone at least a handful of 360-degree feedback processes. Over the years, as each of these review or feedback documents has been handed to them, they’ve gotten into the habit of skimming the first page, flipping past the “Strengths” section, and obsessing unhealthily over the comments in the section titled “Opportunities” or “Challenges.”

This is because the model of “Strengths” and “Challenges” treats leadership performance as a set of fixed attributes, aspects of yourself that you should feel either good or bad about. Spend time on your strengths, and you’re patting yourself on the back. Spend time on your challenges, and you end up demotivated by viewing yourself as someone with evident character flaws.

We propose instead a model in which your performance as a leader is grounded in your “default settings.” Like any electronic device or piece of hardware that you buy, people come with factory-installed default settings. These settings render some skills easy to perform and others more difficult. Successful executives have leaned in, maximizing the skills that come to them naturally and creating a virtuous cycle of performance and practice. They’ve found ways to avoid the less-inherent tasks or the settings that call for them.

Leaders who view strengths and challenges as attributes, risk paying insufficient attention to the implications of their default settings. We all have things that come to us easily. Failing to realize that you are more fluid than others in a certain skill or practice will lead you to view yourself as “average” and others as “subpar.” As a result, you may underestimate the degree to which you need to reverse engineer what you do and teach it to others. You are also likely to hold unrealistic expectations, with an unachievably high bar for others’ performance and speed. You will do your team a disservice by perennially viewing them as subpar in these areas, while failing to offer them the time and guidance that they need to become more fluid in the skills.

Similarly, framing other default settings as deficits or flaws diminishes your ability to feel valuable or worthy. It is de-energizing to think, “there’s something wrong with me.” If instead you recognize that your defaults render some skills more challenging, you now have alternatives. We suggest that you have three options for addressing skills that do not come to you easily. The first option is to acknowledge that this is not a natural talent of yours. You will show up as human and relatable when you proactively tell others, “I wish I was better at doing this, but it’s never come easily to me. Please help me if you see me struggling.” An example might be someone who is working on being concise and focused when speaking to a group. The second option is for skills that are important but would take a great deal of time and effort to develop personally. Those can be outsourced to someone for whom the task comes easily. An example would be a creative leader who depends on her chief of staff to keep her organized and on track. The third option is for those few areas that you must try to improve, even though you may never excel at them. An example would be offering words of encouragement and gratitude to the team that works for you. Even if you will never be fully fluid at doing this, it is something that cannot be outsourced or allowed to slide, so leveraging tools and reminders are necessary.

The good news is that like hardware settings, human defaults can be adjusted. Doing so takes some tinkering. You’ll need to understand how the defaults work, and you may need to develop some new habits. Just as engineers can install software on top of the hardware to adapt a user interface or output, people can build mindfulness, practices, and habits that enable them to become more fluid in areas that did not initially come to them naturally. For both hardware and people, it is critical to remember that adding software uses extra power, and the device or person will need extra time to recharge. The payoff that comes from understanding and addressing your defaults is that you will increase your flexibility and agility, becoming more effective and more applicable across a wider variety of settings.

This piece was referenced by The Globe and Mail.

Valerie Nellen is a senior partner at RHR International. She works with client organizations to empower people to know themselves differently, capitalize on their unique traits, and create value by fostering meaning and optionality.