“Be yourself — not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” — Henry David Thoreau
There are essentially two types of leadership styles: Command & Control, and Empower & Coach. Both are effective in different situations. When a group is in conflict with another group, the group finds comfort and safety in a strong Command & Control type leader. War is the perfect example. A platoon may profoundly dislike its platoon leader, but if its members think she will keep them alive, they will follow her and accept her authority.
In Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologist Jon Maner of Florida State University reviews these two leadership styles through the lens of how one approaches the attainment of social status. Maner defines the two strategies as dominance and prestige, indicating that Command & Control leaders are motivated by the attainment of dominance over others, whereas Empower & Coach leaders are primarily driven to seek respect and prestige.
Research suggests that dominance seeking people exhibit arrogance, superiority, and conceit. They are more aggressive than most, and display entitled, disagreeable, and manipulative personality traits. They also tend towards clinical personality disorders including narcissism and psychopathology.
Those who seek prestige, often display a complex conflation of both humility and pride. The outward personality of prestige seekers is marked by self-esteem, agreeableness, need for affiliation, social monitoring, fear of negative evaluation, and conscientiousness.
In groups, dominance members tend to view others as either allies or foes, to evaluate people’s usefulness in attaining goals, and show a desire for control. Those who use prestige strategies share knowledge and skills. Unsurprisingly, prestige-oriented people tend to be better liked by others in a group.
Leaders high in dominance go to great lengths to safeguard their power, even at the cost of the group. They want to coerce others through reward and punishment. They often view talented group members as threats. In his article, Maner details how “In one experiment, dominance-oriented leaders ostracized a talented group member and chose instead to work with an incompetent one.” Maner tells of another study where leaders “isolated their subordinates and prevented them from bonding with one another, because alliances among subordinates were viewed as posing potential threats.”
Prestige oriented leaders, however, promote strong positive relationships among subordinates. They support the best efforts of the group, even when their own power is at risk.
Per Manor’s analysis, prestigious leaders seem like good people and dominant leaders sound like jerks. However, both are motivated by the attainment of status, which means they are primarily ego driven in that both types are likely to compromise their values in an effort to achieve what they are after. In other words, there is a high probability that they aren’t being true to themselves, that they aren’t navigating the professional world as their authentic selves. Both are driven by fear and a need to attain social status. One just has a nicer way of doing it.
I believe there is a more effective way to lead, and that is with genuine authenticity. While it is impossible to operate completely without ego, with practice, we can put ego in the back seat, and operate with the interests of others as our primary motivator. The two things that have helped me most in aspiring to authentic leadership are a meditation practice and an uncompromising adherence to principles.
When we put our principles first and are willing to stand by them, fear is removed, and we are free to be ourselves, which promises better outcomes for our endeavors.
For many, the notion of meditation brings with it the mystical trappings of a spiritual pursuit, including unfounded ideas about the nature of reality and the iconography and cultural artifacts of religious faiths. As a lifelong secular rationalist, I rejected meditation as intellectually suspect for most of my life. However, in recent years scientific inquiry has resulted in empirical evidence supporting the psychological, biological and behavioral benefits of meditation.
Meditation can be practiced within a secular and scientific context and does not require belief in anything on insufficient evidence. I was made aware of this when I read Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, a best-selling author and public intellectual whose areas of inquiry include a wide range of topics including neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, social science, and technology.
In the modern vernacular, the quality of mind cultivated with meditation is commonly referred to as “Mindfulness.” While Mindfulness successfully places meditation into the realm of secular reason, the term doesn’t adequately describe the benefits of the practice. In the words of Sam Harris, “Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to moderate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.“
Mindfulness is not about being on time, or remembering people’s names. In fact, if one is practicing “attention to the contents of consciousness” and actively avoiding distracting thoughts, one may even be perceived as absent minded at times, when in actuality they are focused.
Most of all, meditation profoundly enhances one’s self awareness, specifically as it pertains to the relationship between ego and behavior.
While this may sound counterintuitive, the most effective way to engender trust and respect from a group of peers is to acknowledge one’s weaknesses. By demonstrating comfort in discussing one’s weaknesses, one engenders team trust and alleviates fear and insecurity in others. This gives people confidence, and confidence is the key to unlocking potential. Most importantly it allows one to operate as an authentic leader rather than one who is playing the role of a leader.
What Leadership is not About
- Leadership is not stuff that a manager does, like decision making, problem solving, mediating disputes, strategic planning or even motivating teams.
- Leadership is not an Executive role, and above all, it is not telling people how to do their jobs.
While leaders certainly perform those functionas, these are management tasks and have little to do with what makes a good leader.
What Leadership is About
Leadership is about 3 simple things:
Purpose is a fundamental human need. A leader’s job is to ensure every person on the team has a clear and rewarding sense of purpose in relation to their work, and that that purpose is recognized by their peers.
People need to feel safe to do their best work. They need to feel that others have their back and they can make mistakes without punitive consequences. When someone on the team makes a mistake, leadership is ultimately accountable. They would not have made the mistake had they been better coached, or if their manager had been more aware of a brewing issue and involved in helping to resolve it. Good product leaders must establish a culture where mistakes or bad calls are regarded as learning opportunities. Few people want to do things poorly. Most everyone has good intentions. When leaders stand by their team they will approach their collective endeavors with motivation, excitement and vigor.
For a leader there is no value in taking credit for the work. Even in cases where the work is primarily their own, effective leaders use it as an opportunity for a teammate to further their experience presenting to stakeholders. They give it to them to own. They acknowledge people’s work publicly and never make it about themselves. If they make it about them, they appear egocentric, and rightly so. If they make it about their team they are providing new opportunities for their team to gain new experience and enhance their confidence. Confident leaders give their team what they deserve: grateful praise, which, thanks to a wonderful chemical called dopamine, will give them feelings of joy and satisfaction. They will feel valued, because they are valued.
What Great Leaders Have in Common
The best leaders I have worked all do the following:
- Acknowledge their weaknesses
- Demonstrate vulnerability
- Ask for feedback
- Converse instead of command
- Demonstrate trust; let people fail and learn
- Focus on growth, not performance
- Put their people first
As a result, high performance teams demonstrate these traits:
- Feel safe & supported
- Have clarity of purpose
- Feel trusted & empowered
- Bond as a team
- Are motivated to succeed
The Neuroscience of Leadership
There is a science to good leadership, rooted in biological evolution and how our body’s hormones regulate our behavior. The chemicals that are most relevant are the following:
- ENDORPHINS: masks physical pain to enable endurance
- DOPAMINE: rewards us when we have achieved a goal
- SEROTONIN: regulates fear so we can operate in the world
- OXYTOCIN: acts as a powerful social bonding agent
- CORTISOL: drives our “fight or flight” instincts and acts as an oxytocin inhibitor
The first two, endorphins and dopamine, make us feel good.
Evolution gave us endorphins so we could perform amazing feats of endurance in order to survive. In the animal kingdom, sapiens were not particularly strong or fast, and their bodies lacked both natural armor and sharp teeth. Unlike in the movies, if you punch someone in the face, you are more likely to break a knuckle than knock your opponent out.
Dopamine makes us feel good, really good. It’s what is released during sex, eating, being praised by our parents, or accomplishing a goal. We will endure great suffering to reach a goal that promises a good dose of dopamine. If dopamine didn’t exist we likely wouldn’t eat and starve to death. But dopamine is also addictive and is responsible for substance abuse, obesity, high risk behaviors, and smartphone addiction, to name just a few.
Dopamine and endorphins need to be regulated and counter balanced. As mentioned, humans weren’t too impressive as individuals, so we had to learn to work together in order to survive. We also had to develop strong fear instincts, and chemicals like cortisol to allow us to focus on the threat and address it.
Oxytocin, which is the chemical that floods a woman’s brain as she gives birth to ensure that she bonds with her child, is also responsible for general social bonding. Oxytocin is what brings us together to work as a team to achieve our dopamine promising goals. However, if the environment is fear inducing, cortisol runs high, and cortisol inhibits oxytocin. The evolutionary reason for this is simple: if you are being attacked by a tiger, you need to focus on running or killing the tiger, so emotions like empathy may impair your instincts. You may try to save your children first and get killed in the process. First you need to save yourself so you can save your family and then maybe your tribe.
In a professional environment, if people are operating in a state of fear they will intrinsically be focused on themselves and avoid situations that require collaboration and team work. They will engage in political backstabbing. They are not bad people, they are simply fueled by the chemicals in their brain.
Leaders can impact behavior towards collaboration and achievement simply by making people feel safe and eliminating as much fear from the environment as possible. Leaders who aggressively interrogate people in public settings, or foster an individualistic, competitive environment are working against themselves and the interests of the organization. They are fostering an environment of political infighting, non-collaboration and competitiveness. The consequence of this is that some people will feel bad, become apathetic and uninspired. To be fair, some will thrive in a cut-throat environment, but at what cost? The greed and unethical practices of Wall Street in recent years, and the devastating impact on the country’s economy and the livelihood of millions of Americans were the consequence of such a professional culture.
In order to operate authentically, I need to let those who work with me know who I am and how to best work with me. This requires communications and transparency. Putting it all out there from the beginning, the good and the bad, increases the speed of acceptance and reduces the probability of misunderstanding or misinterpretation.