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The Unnatural
Leader
A more complex business world requires
less rigid leadership and the ability to
respond to an ever-changing environment.
ONCE UPON A TIME,
heroic leaders steered an organization with a
firm grip and solved problems single-handedly while still managing to keep
the troops inspired. For better or worse, that stereotype doesn’t fly anymore in
American business, and it’s even more nuanced in the global realm. The current characteristics and traits of effective leadership present a new model that
turns the classic version on its head.
One advantage of having coached and worked with senior leaders and
CEOs for more than 20 years is the sense we’ve developed for the big picture.
Particularly in the past 10 years, the world has become both increasingly complex and increasingly transparent. To be credible in the business world of 2005,
leaders need to respond effectively to that complexity, while also being more
transparent about the reasons for their decisions and communicating with an
extremely diverse workforce.
If that approach to leadership sounds like it might strain a few underused
muscles, it should. What’s felt like natural leadership for a long time is no
longer functional. To be effective, leaders must now behave in ways that feel
unnatural. The characteristics and approaches they need to develop seem antithetical to the traditional process of leadership. Our research and firsthand
observations led us to define a number of “unnatural” leadership instincts
demonstrated by the most effective leaders. Four of those new instincts are personal challenges; three have to do with leading teams; and three are about leading
the organization. You’ll find, however, no formula for adopting these 10 unnatural
instincts. Each must be considered and adapted on a situational basis. For a global
leader, that means that cultural considerations create an additional dimension.
Personal challenges
In the personal realm, leaders must challenge themselves.
Refuse to be a prisoner of experience. Leaders, perhaps even more than most people, are prone to keep doing what has made them successful in the past. Why
change what has become second nature? The temptation to go with what has
always worked is especially strong today, given the degree to which decisionmaking time has compressed and the rapidity with which new challenges
bang on the door.
Unfortunately, experience can be a handicap, if not a prison. The inclination to reach for tried-and-true approaches means that you’re effectively blind
to the opportunities and hazards of constant change. The unnatural leader
recognizes the need to be comfortable with chaos in order to navigate a business environment that’s difficult to predict, let alone direct. That requires honing a discipline for looking at new situations with a fresh eye.
Expose your vulnerabilities. At some level, leaders instinctively believe that credibility is enhanced by presenting certainty and decisiveness, remaining calm in
By Peter Cairo,
David L. Dotlich, and
Stephen H. Rhinesmith
TDMarch 2005 27
Copyright ASTD, March 2005
LEADERSHIP
the eye of the storm, and never getting caught making a mistake. An up-and-coming manager can’t
help but notice that an air of infallibility seems to
propel a person onto the leadership fast track, no
matter what the party line may be. And yet, there’s
real evidence that senior executives make their
biggest errors precisely because they maintain that
aura of invulnerability.
There’s too much ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty in the world for any leader to expect to have
all the answers. Projecting absolute certainty and unshakeable confidence creates a barrier that hinders a
person from receiving alternative perspectives, contrary data, and critical information. Leaders need a
strong point of view, but they must also develop an
unnatural instinct for admitting that they don’t always know the right way to go. Gaps in knowledge
and a deliberate suspension of judgment actually
provide space for team members and direct reports
to step forward and contribute at a higher level. A
leader who enlists that support actively and schedules time for learning and information gathering is
better prepared to deal with change.
Acknowledge your shadow side. Our strengths cast a
shadow. Too much charisma contributes to a sense
of arrogance and invulnerability. A burning desire
for perfection can create intolerance for the mistakes of others. Years ago, the shadow side was better hidden by the respect afforded to those in
leadership positions. In an age of transparency and
teamwork, the shadow can get leaders into a lot of
trouble quickly.
The talented people that surround a leader do
not—and perhaps cannot—put up with a leader’s
shadow for long. Abusive behavior or inability to
accept input, for example, are major impediments
to team functionality. Peers and direct reports can
easily undermine a leader’s efforts if they feel that
the leader’s weaknesses are eclipsing his or her
strengths. On the other hand, if a leader is open to acknowledging his or her shadow side and works hard
to negate its effects, peers and reports feel safe and
encouraged to pitch in and be supportive. It may not
feel natural for a leader to be so open, but it works.
Develop a right-versus-right decision-making mentality.
Natural leaders want the right answer, and many
are willing to dig hard to get it. They will do the research, push reports and associates for data, and
gather evidence from critical sources. But, then they
want to make a clear-cut decision and move forward with resolve. It’s a characteristic of the pragmatic, level-headed executive.
The complex web of multiple interests, perspectives, and possibilities makes clear-cut decisions
next to impossible. No amount of analysis or re-
28 TDMarch 2005
search will yield one right answer because there are
always a number of possible right answers available.
Executives are often faced with a choice between
right and right.
It’s unnatural for a leader to accept that there’s
no one right solution, but doing so frees the leader
to consider a range of solutions. At such times, values may become the touchstone over facts. Alternatively, a leader may try one path but be willing and
able to shift directions in the future. This new pragmatism prevents a leader from being handcuffed by
past decisions that are no longer effective.
Team challenges
Going beyond the self, today’s leaders must also
exhibit unnatural characteristics to lead teams
effectively.
Create teams that create discomfort. The old boys club
is not a group, it’s a state of mind. Leaders are inclined to surround themselves with trusted colleagues and friends, with whom they can let their
guard down somewhat and share ideas, opinions,
and concerns. Ironically, that sense of comfort can
create an environment of sameness in which a
leader is unaware of important information and
ideas. Predictable thinking patterns, limited points
of view, and a narrow range of experience insulate a
leader from critical data and innovative approaches.
Unnatural leaders build teams in which contradictory views are in creative conflict. They’re willing
to choose team members whose thinking they view
as radical or untraditional. They even select strongminded individuals they have disagreed with in the
past. Balance and diversity are more critical than
comfort and unity.
Trust others before they earn it. A natural leader’s trust in
team members and direct reports builds slowly, only
after loyalty, performance, and commitment have
been demonstrated in tough situations. An unnatural
leader learns to offer trust at the outset of a relationship, as a means of accelerating the chemistry that’s
critical to the high performance of any team.
That unnatural mode is necessary for a number of
reasons. A merger or alliance may turn competitors
into colleagues overnight. Fast-moving organizations
need to be able to form temporary project teams to
seize new opportunities. Talented new hires have to
hit the ground running as soon as they join the organization. Without trust, teams are severely hampered
in their ability to share ideas, work together, and solve
problems. Fortunately, trust is catalyzed by the simple
act of offering it up freely and expecting it in return.
Coach and teach rather than lead and inspire. Most leaders understand the importance of coaching and
teaching. Natural leaders, however, still find the
Copyright ASTD, March 2005
LEADERSHIP
Unnatural Selection
The authors of this article were asked to put theory aside
and to offer names of leaders who might fit their unnatural
criteria.
“I had dinner recently with Bill Weldon (chairman and
CEO, Johnson & Johnson),” says David L. Dotlich, who
adds that the executive “practically described” the attributes set out in the book on which this article is based. “He
talked about how he manages, acknowledges vulnerability,
and doesn’t worry about who gets the credit. I am biased,
but I would say he definitely fits the bill.
“I also think Nelson Mandela is a good example of a
public figure who is an unnatural leader. He’s known for his
own ability to ‘connect rather than create.’”
“This will reveal my own biases,” says co-author Peter
Cairo, “but Andrea Jung would be a great example.” He
says that the Avon Products chairman and CEO has “high
self-awareness and is not afraid of bringing the best talent
into the organization.” He adds that she has brought discipline to Avon’s operations while not losing sight of the longterm vision. “She gets the role of leadership development in
executing strategy,” Cairo adds.
intimacy and expectations of a coaching relationship to be very unnatural. Direct reports look to
leaders for much more than marching orders. They
expect guidance and feedback in line with development needs.
Natural leaders fall back on a “lead and inspire”
mode by default. Unnatural leaders know they must
make time for reports, be available emotionally to
discuss workplace issues, and be honest and supportive in providing feedback. If all of that feels outside the agenda of achieving objectives and results,
the leader is missing the point.
Organizational challenges
Finally, at the enterprise level, leaders also lead
“teams of teams” through unnatural characteristics.
Connect instead of create. Boundarylessness may have
been pioneered by General Electric Co. years ago, but
it’s still an unnatural mode for most organizations.
No organization, however, can adopt, take advantage of, or respond to new technologies, new products, and market changes rapidly enough without
getting very good at forming connections and alliances. Natural leaders—firmly invested in their
own organization’s success—find it difficult to admit that the organization needs outside help. And
they find it next to impossible to allow others access
to their proprietary ideas and approaches.
Unnatural leaders reject the heroic ideal of going
30 TDMarch 2005
it alone. Instead, they’re willing to exchange information, ideas, and products with allies and competitors to stay on top of new developments and
opportunities. They recognize that pride of ownership is a hollow victory in an open-source world.
Give up some control. The ability to control situations
and outcomes is often critical to a young leader’s
development. Leaders have a natural inclination to
continue flexing their control muscles as they move
up the organization. With greater power and authority, however, the increased ability to assert control
becomes an impediment to success. Despite the constant pressure for results, leaders must learn to
loosen their grip on control.
It can be difficult, and the behaviors that are
used to assert control can be subtle and hard to
identify. Nevertheless, the unnatural leader must
strive for a more effective balance between control
and autonomy to get the most from people.
Challenge conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom
is a critical aspect of an organization’s culture. It filters events and ideas in a way that organizes new
information into culturally appropriate responses.
When conventional wisdom becomes too beholden
to the past, however, an organization’s culture
grows stale. The natural leader has much at stake in
keeping conventional wisdom sacred; after all, he or
she helped formulate it. The unnatural leader challenges conventional wisdom because a vibrant,
innovative interpretation of the world is essential.
Challenging conventional wisdom is not done
alone, and it’s not done with revolutionary fervor.
The unnatural leader preserves the culture while
opening it up to new approaches and ideas. To be
effective, the unnatural leader enrolls others in a
continuing questioning of basic assumptions.
Recalibrate the leadership model
It can be difficult to shake the idea that the traditional heroic leadership model feels natural because
it is right. Like a familiar and well-trodden path, few
who engage in natural leadership question where
the approach came from or where it is leading, even
in the face of failure or demonstrations of inadequacy. Our traditional view of leadership is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Leaders are calm, decisive,
and demanding. They never show uncertainty or a
lack of resolve. They are pragmatists who favor results over values and believe that the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line.
They exhibit personal power in the form of charisma, inhabit power by position, and use power as a
blunt instrument to achieve their goals. They never
fail. And, by implication, they never grow.
As Charles Handy wrote in The Hungry Spirit, it’s
Copyright ASTD, March 2005
time for us to “acknowledge that there are over
40 million learners who aren’t in school anymore
and who need to urgently discover their strength
through failings.”
Despite what one might expect, most executives
buy into the idea of unnatural leadership, at least
intellectually. But if there’s one constant truism of
leadership, it’s that words must match deeds. When
it comes to demonstrating unnatural leadership,
most executives are quick to return to old habits
because those behaviors feel comfortable to them
and others, and are often sanctioned by the organization. For the individual, the group, and the organization, resistance to unnatural leadership is not
always rational, logical, or even easy to explain, but
it’s a formidable barrier.
What can be done to remove such resistance factors and accelerate the leader’s shift to a new set of
unnatural capabilities? Leaders must learn to look up
from the myriad of details that clutter their workday
and readjust attention on the big picture. Few leaders
ever give themselves the opportunity to assess their
leadership assumptions regularly; it just isn’t scheduled. By acknowledging the paradox and chaos facing
today’s leaders, we encourage a focused self-awareness that can break the grip of old ways.
Combining that awareness with small unnatural
steps can bring more lasting changes in leadership
behaviors. If we give leaders the opportunity to test
their new muscles in designated experimentation
zones⎯times and places set aside where awkwardness is sanctioned⎯we provide a substitute for the
security of the familiar and comfortable. Peer coaching, peer review, and 360-degree feedback can further help accentuate awareness and accelerate the
adoption of new behaviors, while simultaneously
enlisting the support and encouragement of colleagues and stakeholders⎯the very people a leader
probably fears being unnatural in front of most.
Little by little, the discipline of analyzing one’s
own actions and assessing the consequences of
both traditional and unnatural behaviors sets in.
The unnatural leader learns to modulate his or her
approach depending on the situation and cultural
context. By exercising such muscles regularly, the
unnatural leader begins to feel a lot more natural at
home in the world. TD
David L. Dotlich is president of Mercer Delta Executive Learning Center, formerly CDR International. Peter Cairo and
Stephen H. Rhinesmith are partners with the Executive
Learning Center; https://elc.mercerdelta.com. This article
is based on the book Unnatural Leadership: Going Against
Intuition and Experience to Develop Ten New Leadership
Instincts, by Dotlich and Cairo (Jossey Bass, 2002).
Copyright ASTD, March 2005
TDMarch 2005 31
The Unnatural
Leader
A more complex business world requires
less rigid leadership and the ability to
respond to an ever-changing environment.
ONCE UPON A TIME,
heroic leaders steered an organization with a
firm grip and solved problems single-handedly while still managing to keep
the troops inspired. For better or worse, that stereotype doesn’t fly anymore in
American business, and it’s even more nuanced in the global realm. The current characteristics and traits of effective leadership present a new model that
turns the classic version on its head.
One advantage of having coached and worked with senior leaders and
CEOs for more than 20 years is the sense we’ve developed for the big picture.
Particularly in the past 10 years, the world has become both increasingly complex and increasingly transparent. To be credible in the business world of 2005,
leaders need to respond effectively to that complexity, while also being more
transparent about the reasons for their decisions and communicating with an
extremely diverse workforce.
If that approach to leadership sounds like it might strain a few underused
muscles, it should. What’s felt like natural leadership for a long time is no
longer functional. To be effective, leaders must now behave in ways that feel
unnatural. The characteristics and approaches they need to develop seem antithetical to the traditional process of leadership. Our research and firsthand
observations led us to define a number of “unnatural” leadership instincts
demonstrated by the most effective leaders. Four of those new instincts are personal challenges; three have to do with leading teams; and three are about leading
the organization. You’ll find, however, no formula for adopting these 10 unnatural
instincts. Each must be considered and adapted on a situational basis. For a global
leader, that means that cultural considerations create an additional dimension.
Personal challenges
In the personal realm, leaders must challenge themselves.
Refuse to be a prisoner of experience. Leaders, perhaps even more than most people, are prone to keep doing what has made them successful in the past. Why
change what has become second nature? The temptation to go with what has
always worked is especially strong today, given the degree to which decisionmaking time has compressed and the rapidity with which new challenges
bang on the door.
Unfortunately, experience can be a handicap, if not a prison. The inclination to reach for tried-and-true approaches means that you’re effectively blind
to the opportunities and hazards of constant change. The unnatural leader
recognizes the need to be comfortable with chaos in order to navigate a business environment that’s difficult to predict, let alone direct. That requires honing a discipline for looking at new situations with a fresh eye.
Expose your vulnerabilities. At some level, leaders instinctively believe that credibility is enhanced by presenting certainty and decisiveness, remaining calm in
By Peter Cairo,
David L. Dotlich, and
Stephen H. Rhinesmith
TDMarch 2005 27
Copyright ASTD, March 2005
LEADERSHIP
the eye of the storm, and never getting caught making a mistake. An up-and-coming manager can’t
help but notice that an air of infallibility seems to
propel a person onto the leadership fast track, no
matter what the party line may be. And yet, there’s
real evidence that senior executives make …
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