set of game pieces with one isolated from the rest of the group

Quiet, reserved, and very unassuming, she was hired for her technical expertise. We were pleasantly surprised that she emerged as one of the most effective leaders we ever had. She moved through the ranks quickly and now is one of our directors. I will not be surprised when she makes it to our C-Suite.

To me leadership is such a quandary. Why do some people emerge as leaders who totally surprise us? Conversely, why do others who seem to have everything needed to be an effective leader never take on the mantle of leadership?

What is leadership to you? If you had to draw a picture and use no words, what would that picture look like? This is an interesting exercise, particularly in a group. What do the similarities between individuals tell you about leadership in your organization? The differences may tell a more insightful story.

Having done this exercise many times, some typical drawings, using stick figures of course, have an individual in front of a group, providing some sort of direction. Many times, the sketches depict different levels with the leader higher or separated from the group. Not surprising is it?

What are some of the outliers I have seen?

  • An individual sitting by themselves thinking.
  • The leader immersed in a crowd without any special stature or visible difference.
  • The leader depicted at the bottom of the organization and serving others.

An important part of this exercise is to provide each participant the opportunity to explain their drawing, articulating what leadership means to them. This creates an interesting and rich discussion about what leadership really is. The hero or the story of the hero’s journey always emerges along with the great person, full of charisma who sits at the top of an organization. These are the images of leaders many of us have carried around for years. A list of character traits is also an inevitable product.

Hearing examples of how leadership is manifested by the non-traditional images has been enlightening. What emerges are stories of leaders who are followed because they made connections with followers. The image of the powerful charismatic CEO does not fit. What fits is the individual who connects with people in a particular environment. What have I learned? The environment, the context, and what the followers need may be the most important part of a leader’s success.

Ever see a successful leader get moved into a new area and struggle? Was the person’s previous success based on their character traits and skills or was it the match of traits, skills, environment, followers, and connection?

I am becoming a believer that leadership is about matching traits and skills of the leader with the environment and people that need and want the connection at that time.

How have you responded to general education leadership courses? What if you could have the general education, focus on what you need and want and assist you in discovering the type of organization and people you connect with?

Do you consider Mother Theresa of Calcutta a leader? Would she have been a leader in another context? She may have failed miserably in other contexts; we only know her as a leader in the streets of Calcutta serving a specific population. Environment and connecting with the right followers at the right time is extremely important to leadership development. President Lincoln is well known for his many failures. What impact did the timing and context have on his success? What impact would Martin Luther King have had in another time?

How would your leadership emerge if the focus of your growth was on developing the skills and traits to fit into a context you are comfortable with? How would the leadership of those you work with emerge if you developed them for a specific context?