A Portfolio of Leaders: Why Embracing Variety Makes Sense

Our culture has a fairly consistent view of the natural leader. He’s self-confident, outgoing, assertive, even charismatic. His voice dominates, and because he’s the best at everything, he calls the shots. And he’s a guy.

This picture certainly matches the current reality. White men comprise about 70% of executive teams and boards of directors in S&P 500 companies, and in one survey a whopping 96% of leaders and managers identified themselves extraverts. (Interestingly, some studies show that between 25% and 30% of company executives are actually more on the introverted side, suggesting an overwhelming pressure to conform to an extravert ideal.)

And what’s the picture like in the tech world and among entrepreneurs? Remember, these communities purport to be forward-thinking, open-minded, risk-taking—definitely not “business as usual.”

In 2014, some previously tight-lipped technology companies made public the statistics on the gender and race of their employees. The percentage of women in leadership roles was 17% at Microsoft, 21% at Google, 21% at Twitter, 23% at Facebook, and 28% at Apple. (Because these companies define “leadership” differently—some count all managers, others count only directors and above—hard-and-fast comparisons aren’t reliable.) As Google bravely stated, “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.”

In the start-up world, the picture is even more skewed. In a Dow Jones VentureSource analysis of 20,000 venture-backed companies over 15 years, only 7% of the executives at successful companies were women. At the start-up stage, 83% of the companies backed by venture capital had no women at all.

So is Mr. Bold Commander the best model for a leader? Or the best in all situations?

Certainly, a lot of companies, teams, and initiatives flourish under this form of leadership. Not surprisingly, people who fall outside the charmed circle are often urged to act more like insiders. Quiet people are told to speak up; women are counseled to act more like men; and everybody is pressured to fit in. For some people, this is undoubtedly just the nudge they need to put themselves forward and start climbing the ladder of success.

For others, it causes insidious harm. Writing under the pen name EricaJoy, a young black woman has described her experience at a series of predominantly white, male technology companies. She ignored racial slurs, laughed at sexist jokes, started playing shooter games, and did everything she could to fit in while not making waves. The result? Stress, isolation, and a profound alienation from her authentic self.

As Roxanne Gay has eloquently argued, a woman shouldn’t have to lead like a man to be successful.

A leadership monoculture also deprives a company of some of the high performers that could add to its competitiveness. If other potential leaders are effective, then we are surely failing to capitalize on the talent, training, and results they could offer.

Many recent studies and commentators suggest this may be the case.

It’s repeatedly been shown that companies with women on their boards of directors have significantly better performance records, especially if there are multiple women on the board over a sustained period of time. (Temporary tokenism isn’t enough.) Likewise, the VentureSource study showed that successful startups have more women in executive positions ( 7%) than unsuccessful ones (3%).

Most of these studies claim only correlation, not causation. Having women at the executive level may lead to better performance, but it could also be the case that women choose to work for more successful companies or that smarter companies hire more women executives.

A survey of 600 board directors suggests that women have a distinctly different decision-making style and that this boosts corporate performance.

Kevin O’Leary, the tough and outspoken entrepreneur known as “Mr. Wonderful” on the show The Shark Tank, explained in a recent interview why he prefers women CEOs: “I just make more money with women, period.” In his view, they take fewer risks, are more goal oriented, and are more likely to deliver results.

The introverted leader is no longer an oxymoron. Indeed, we may be in the midst of an introvert lovefest, spurred on by best-selling books such as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking and Frances B. Kahnweiler’s The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. Across the blogosphere, consensus on the potential strengths of introverted leaders is emerging:

  • They think before they act, looking for underlying reasons rather than quick answers.
  • They are good listeners, well-practiced in decoding the needs and perspectives of other people.
  • The solitude they crave creates time for meaningful reflection.
  • They seem calm, cool, and collected, which is especially useful in times of change and disruption.

But we can’t simply exchange one fantasy for another, imagining that a new personality type is an invincible secret weapon. Research by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David Hofmann suggests that the better leadership style may depend on who is being led: introverted leaders excel at channeling employees who want to contribute to ideas and innovation; extraverted leaders have the edge in motivating employees who are less proactive. The world needs both kinds.

And then there’s “leading from behind,” which is less a personality type and more a mindset. Linda Hill has argued that this form of leadership is especially useful when continuous innovation is the key to competitiveness. It’s a phrase she borrowed from Nelson Mandela: a good leader is like a shepherd who “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others will follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

These leaders can harness the collective genius of their teams by creating a mission-focused culture in which individuals are encouraged to innovate and rewarded for their contributions. Those who lead from behind don’t need to be the center of attention. They let their team members take initiative and bask in the limelight of success.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget the dark side of the charismatic leader. In an influential 1990 paper,  psychologists Robert Hogan, Robert Raskin, and Dan Fazzin described the typical trajectory of flawed charismatic leaders. Once these people are in control, their unhealthy narcissism blossoms into a toxic leadership style: their self-confidence reveals itself as arrogance and self-promotion. They reject advice and the contributions of others, believing with absolute certainty that their ideas and methods are the best. They curry favor with their superiors but exploit their subordinates. And this undermines not only their own careers but the success of their companies.

This cycle is visible on a smaller scale, too. Researchers Neha Parikh Shah and Corinne Bendersky have learned that although self-confident, assertive extraverts may initially gain high status within task-based teams, over time their status declines. It seems that others are well aware they’re being exploited, and the extravert’s ideas are increasingly met with skepticism. This may not affect actual status when the extravert is clearly the boss, but it inevitably undermines respect, engagement, and productivity.

Which is only to say that no one style, no one type of person, is invincible. There’s a dark side to everything.

So here’s a sampling of reasonable variations: women as well as men, introverts as well as extraverts, shepherds as well as commanders. And of course diversity in leadership is possible along other continuums, including race, age, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Wherever change is fast and competition fierce, successful organizations need to be efficient and flexible.  This means getting the very best out of every person on the team and having a broad repertoire of useful skills and competencies to draw on.

Smart organizations will look for ways to cultivate a portfolio of leadership styles. Diversity and inclusion are certainly fair and ethical, but they are also good business.

This is the first post in a series on leadership.  The second is on what all managers do to cultivate a portfolio of leaders.

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