Comparative Science and Relational Complexity

Different Kinds of Leaders

We believe that there are different kinds of leaders. This differs from the conventional leadership view, we know because we start with a different set of assumptions. If you look at most leadership books, you will find many that focus on the “essential qualities” that all leaders must have. And many authors will go so far as to even prescribe the same steps that all must take to develop these essential qualities. The research methodology undertaken by many of these authors was to interview/study many leaders, and then come up with an exhaustive list of the admirable qualities that they have in common, and call those characteristics “leadership essentials.”

While we do believe that this methodology reveals some useful information, we believe that in most cases, the findings can be very misleading when it comes to application for leadership selection or development. It perpetuates a concept we like to call the “Superman Myth.” Are there leaders who exhibit the “essential qualities” largely written about in these books? Of course there are. But we posit that this is an extremely narrow view of leaders and leadership. We believe that most leadership books describe a specific type of leader. In contrast, our belief is that there are other types of leaders who exhibit different qualities, many of which would not make the “essential qualities” list. The conclusion for most of these books is that you can be a leader too, if you have these qualities or can develop them. And unfortunately, too many individuals walk away after reading these kinds of books, feeling as though they are not that way, or never can be. And truth be told, in most cases the conclusions that readers walk away with are probably correct.

We posit that there are fundamentally different kinds of leaders. There are fundamentally different ways of leadership. This makes the “Superman” advice from leadership books not particularly helpful. There are many kinds of behavior that are useful in leadership; however, the individual’s context matters, and not all principles of leadership are appropriate for each kind of leader. We believe that if you really want to understand leadership, that you ought to read less books on “leadership,” and more books on “leaders.” Instead of trying to understand leadership theories, concepts, models, laws, ideas, or essentials, seek to understand the life journeys that leaders have taken. And learn from those journeys. Particularly, we recommend that you learn from the journeys of leaders who are similar persons as you.

If you want to understand leadership, then you must study leaders by watching them very closely. This is largely about our observations of what each leader does/did, and what it took for them to become leaders. Our choice of the leaders we selected to study had very little to do with whether the leader was considered to be moral, or likeable, or socially/politically correct. We chose these leaders regardless of their context in which they operated as leaders. Our main criterion was that whatever the context may have been, they displayed the ability to deliver results.

If you want to understand leadership development, then you must study leaders. Study their life journey to figure out what they did to develop, grow and mature. What activities did they engage in? Leaders come in all different shapes and sizes. Some start early, while others take much longer in their development. The development path is different for different leaders. So the question which most leadership books pose, “Can you become a leader?” is not the relevant question to ask. And the answer of these books purporting that you can become a leader if you work hard enough to develop these “essential qualities” is very simplistic. Instead, the questions you ought to be asking are, “What kind of leader are you? What kind of leader can you be? How do you become that kind of leader?”