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There is no leader personality

A Q&A with Leadership Professor Linda Ginzel on redefining leadership.


It’s a question we think about a lot these days, but 50 years ago it was a new topic of investigation: what are the traits of an effective leader? 


At that time, the personality psychologist asking the question was Raymond B. Cattell. And in 1954, he published an answer – listing traits like dominance, enthusiasm, social boldness and charisma. His model has not only shaped the way we define leadership, but also the idea that leadership can be defined through personality at all – a topic famously explored by authors like Jim Collins and Daniel Goleman decades later.


“People remain firmly committed to the idea that there exists a leader personality type,” writes Linda Ginzel, a clinical professor of managerial psychology at the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School in her interactive book, Choosing Leadership. One of her goals was “to refocus the discussion from innate traits to behaviors – from the noun ‘leader’ to the verb ‘to lead’ ….in order to avoid leadership as a label and embrace it as an action.”


She also encourages us to think about leadership as a skill we can simultaneously cultivate in ourselves, and in those around us. “You can create strong environments that move yourself and other people in a more productive direction,” she writes. 


As part of Torch’s Lead By the Book conversation series – which features expert authors distilling what they’ve learned about leadership – I sat down to chat with Ginzel about some of the core themes of her work, and the leadership transformation she’s currently experiencing in her personal life. Our edited conversation is below.  


One of the goals of your book is to “unfreeze” the labels of manager and leader. What does that mean, and why is it important to you?


Linda Ginzel: Before I started teaching leadership, I was asked to do a talk for young women at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business about how I think about leadership. So I thought, I’ll ask people about their earliest leadership experience as an icebreaker. What I heard from the audience were things like, I haven’t had the opportunity to lead yet, or oh I’m just a manager, but someday, you know, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I will lead.


Where was this coming from? These were amazing, accomplished people. [I wondered] what kind of definition of leadership have they read if they think they’ve never led?


I started thinking the problem is with the definition, and that’s why my book starts by encouraging readers to write their draft of what leadership means. I wanted people to realize it’s behavioral, and not a trait or a role – you don’t have to wait until you’re a CEO and have a budget, a title, and certain credentials to lead.


We have all these stereotypes that everybody wants to lead, nobody wants to manage. But all of us need to manage and to lead. Leaders have a vision of a better future. You take people to this place that doesn’t exist, but once it exists, you’re managing it. I just think that people have these stereotypes about managing and leading that are so counterproductive. 


Elizabeth: Tell me a little bit about the distinction between capital L leadership and lowercase l leadership. It’s something that you write about as being lost in a lot of the seminars, books, articles about leadership. What do you mean by that?


Linda Ginzel: This is about people’s definition of leadership and how people think, oh, leadership has to be transformational. It has to be big. If I can’t change the world, I’m not a leader.


I want people to realize that anytime they make a change and they create a different future, that’s an act of leadership. The more you engage in acts of leadership, the better practice you have and the more opportunities you have to make a bigger difference. If you think that leadership has to do with the capital L, then you’re going to inhibit your own opportunities, and you’re going to inhibit the opportunities of other people. This is my way of trying to counter all these stereotypes about leadership being about other people, about someone else, about someday.


On the other hand, I don’t think we all need to be leading all the time. It’s costly to leave the present and move to the future. You’ve got to be pretty sure that your vision of tomorrow is really good. And you’ve got to be confident that you can do it, and that it’s out there. Only then do you take the risk of leaving the security of the present. So I’m not saying we should be leading all the time, I’m just saying that we should have a better, more calibrated notion of what it means to engage in leadership.


Elizabeth: This reminds me a little bit of an idea from behavioral science: that making small changes to our behavior can help us to create new identities. In this case, through those small acts of leadership, we could start to build an identity of ourselves as a leader.


Linda: According to social psychology, if you want to change your identity, you start with your behaviors, you start with action. A lot of people think that you have to change your attitude to change your behavior, but sometimes if you just change your behavior, your attitude will follow.


Elizabeth: In your book, you also talk about the idea of punctuation points of life as being crucial to your development as a person, and as a leader. You write that “punctuation points are defining moments that can serve as vehicles for self-inquiry and self-understanding.” What was the last punctuation point you personally experienced? How did it change you?


Linda: I’m living it right now. The punctuation point is becoming an empty nester and my mother dying around the same time.


For much of my life, I didn’t really make choices about how I spent my time. It was sort of decided for me in a large way. I had to deal with my mom’s emergencies, I had to deal with her health, I had to deal with her finances. I had to deal with my kids, their college applications, their friends, their events. Now I have to figure out what’s important to me and I’m making changes in my life.


For instance, I have always done so much executive teaching. It’s easy for me. I love teaching,  and get a lot of satisfaction from it. But I’m spending all my time teaching the same things over and over. And I’m not doing other things with my life. So the punctuation point is being an empty nester and, and shifting my priorities more towards me, or I don’t know if it’s more towards me…


Elizabeth: It sounds like you’re doing something you talked about as being important – staying in the question. This idea of trying to live in the uncertainty of the moment, and trying to channel the creative tension that it can produce. It’s a place, you write, “where creative energy and anxiety often reside together.”


Linda: Oh yeah, I’m in it. And I’m really trying to make good decisions. As I always tell my students, this is your life. You know, I have these students in Hong Kong or London. When I travel there, I stay there for a whole week, and I just sit there in the office. And I have these executive students come in, and they think I’m a therapist, because I’m a mother and I’m a psychologist. They would come into the office and say, ‘you know, Linda, I made a mess of my life. I’ve been married three times, my kids hate me’. And I always say to them, ‘Well, you’re not dead yet, it’s not too late. You can change.’ As long as you’re alive, you can make a better choice.