The Leadership Trait Trail
We talk of people “looking presidential” or “having the presence of a CEO.” As a result, many who are interested in leadership try to cultivate the outward look of a leader by posing. Unfortunately, this isn't enough.
When it comes to leadership, most important is what you do and how you do it. Your actions come from the most important tool you have in lead-ership: yourself. If you want to lead, you must marshal your personal traits, as they are what people see.
Acting Like an Archetype
Everyone has an image of what it means to be a leader. The popular view generally includes a number of characteristics idealized in formulaic Hollywood movies and political campaigns:
Just because a view is popular does not make it true or accurate. Many preconceived notions about people's roles come from archetypes, or collective cultural models, that have been around longer than recorded history. Scholars, great thinkers, and scientists such as Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim, and Carl Jung have explored how we internalize such myths and use them as examples of what we are supposed to do.
Popular opinion has scored a number of amazingly wrong concepts. From the world being flat to the meteorological prowess of Pennsylvania-based rodents (otherwise known as groundhogs), people have subscribed en masse to a number of questionable concepts throughout the ages. Concentrate on what you want to achieve and don't get distracted.
Society's understanding of these archetypes often goes astray. Instead of grasping the essence of these roles and how they relate to our own existence, we grasp the superficial aspects and head off in the wrong direction.
True Leadership Traits
When you observe and talk about leadership to people who have implemented change, a different set of character traits generally come to mind:
Strong work ethic
Ability to learn from mistakes
Passion for something greater
A leader can incorporate elements from the list of archetypical or realistic traits — or a leader might have characteristics from both lists. But there is an inherent difference between the two. The archetypical traits are the ones that you either have or you don't. The realistic traits are those that most people can actually learn and improve upon.
That's crucial. If the basic stuff of leadership were impossible to learn, you'd have to give up. Only a tiny percentage of leaders are naturals. The others didn't appear like Athena, fully formed from Zeus's head. They must have come from somewhere.
The stereotypical leader whose characteristics come mostly from the archetypical group can be a problem. Without realistic traits to balance him, the leader can become inhuman, with disastrous results. Genghis Kahn was courageous, and Hitler was persuasive, but neither was a leader you'd want as your own.
And that they did — from their own efforts. They may have started with some of what they needed, but it took effort over time to learn the characteristics and behavior they needed to lead. That's exactly what you can do. There are two important steps. One is to know how to make the changes you need, and the other is to know what changes you'll have to make.