Adela Yang is a member of the Russell Reynolds Associates’ leadership and succession team, supporting the North American and Greater China markets. Lisa Porlier leads the firm’s technology sector in Canada and serves as the deputy country manager.
Millennials entering the work force should understand that aspiring to hold a C-Suite title means embracing typically “quiet” characteristics.
We recently assessed the president of a global industrial company. He was a strong leader with superior intellectual horsepower, a genius for strategic thinking, the resilience to tackle impossible challenges and a 24/7 work ethic. Yet, in some respects, he was failing miserably.
He missed the birth of his first son because of work. His team felt deeply unsatisfied and often demotivated, because they were not given sufficient autonomy to fully utilize their talents. All of this stemmed from the president’s belief that a leader needs to be bold and strong – a belief that was a key driver behind his success, but also his shortcomings.
Companies often favour leaders such as this president: people with “loud” personality characteristics such as extroversion, passion and charisma. Our recent analysis of global chief executive role specifications showed that these “loud” words were used three times more often than those describing “quiet” characteristics, such as humility, authenticity and listening.
And research has long shown that high-potential and leadership-development programs tend to be filled with rising stars who stand out by demonstrating such outwardly observable personality traits.
These archetypal loud leadership traits have certainly produced great leaders. But the current business climate suggests that they may not be sufficient to make the best leaders for the future – especially given the increasing volatility, speed of change, disruption and transformation they will have to master.
The most effective leaders possess not only the loud traits that allow them to cast big visions and persuade others to follow, but they equally demonstrate the quiet traits that allow them to be vulnerable and connect with others. These leaders know when and how to balance their loud and quiet characteristics to meet the business challenges in a specific situation.
These findings are often surprising to older millennials who are being considered for C-Suite titles, as well as newly appointed or soon-to-be CEOs. The industrial company president came to understand that leaders become stronger when they are willing to show vulnerability. He began to ask for help and allow others to take the lead when necessary. Within a year, his team’s performance materially stepped up. The executive also increased time spent over the weekend with his family and even started to golf again.
Today’s complex business environment requires leaders to be increasingly flexible in how they relate to people. Leaders who can handle virtually any business situation are those who are:
- Both disruptive and pragmatic: Organizations need leaders to disrupt the status quo with innovative strategies, but they also must be realistic about focus, priorities and the pace of innovation in their organization.
- Both risk-taking and reluctant: Good leaders are opportunistic, but we also want them to show some vigilance before making long-lasting decisions.
- Both heroic and vulnerable: Heroic leaders tend to persevere and be gritty, but they also need to be open to changing course, when necessary, based on feedback from their team and external data.
- Both galvanizing and connecting: Leaders must galvanize support with energy and inspiration, but they also need to know when to take a step back and share credit, when to promote the success of others and when to connect with the broader organization and to generate long-term people followership.
Few people are naturally strong in all of these traits, but people can change.
Executives who want to improve their leadership abilities can start by acknowledging their natural tendencies, whether they’re loud or quiet, and seeking ways to demonstrate the other side.
A natural disruptor who enjoys pushing boundaries needs to gather information about the organization’s current capabilities and culture to ensure their ideas are not impractical. A heroic and galvanizing leader should continue to leverage courage, energy and charisma, but also understand the importance of listening and soliciting feedback. Equally, those who are naturally more quiet need to reflect on whether they are too cautious and analytical to capture fast-moving opportunities, and whether they are so focused on others that they fail to sufficiently differentiate themselves.
As millennials begin to dominate the C-Suite ranks (which in many technology companies is already the case), they will face unprecedented uncertainty and volatility – and with it, the need to break the stereotypical image of leadership. While loud has long reigned supreme, it’s time to look at a more complex – and slightly quieter – model of leadership to succeed across the wide range of looming challenges.