Given that many readers of this blog are in leadership positions at social game companies, I wanted to pass on the key lessons from an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review on How to Become a Better Leader. The gist of the article is that while great leaders make their work look natural, the reality is that most work very hard to manage or compensate potentially career limiting traits. Even Richard Branson, who seems like one of the most natural and gifted leaders, said he was “shy and retiring” before starting Virgin Airways.
The article points out that there are five traits commonly accepted by researchers in leadership to describe leaders. Below, I will summarize these five traits and how leaders control these traits to become great and hopefully ways you can apply them to create a great social game company.
Need for stability
Emotional stability is the way executives deal with stress, setbacks and uncertainty. On one extreme, many people are too composed. Your team may feel a lack of urgency or find you uninspiring if you are too composed. You may also be over-optimistic about the chances of initiatives or new products to succeed. One way to compensate for this problem is to create mental (or written) lists of why initiatives may not work out as well as the optimistic (composed) reasons that that initiative will be successful.
At the other extreme, an executive can be too impatient and overreact. If you fall into this category, you need to find a way to empty this anger or anxiety before it brews over. One way to do this is to verbalize these emotions to yourself or a trusted confidante, as just putting the feelings to words dampens the emotions.
Extraversion is your desire to interact with others and draw energy from them. As leadership is about influencing people, it can be a great benefit to be outgoing, assertive and energetic. Although this trait is often perceived with great leadership, the correlation with effective leadership is much weaker. Executives who are very assertive often do not listen well. The article suggests a good remedy for this problem: the four sentence rule, which says you should limit yourself to four sentences, then ask the audience if you should go on.
If you are at the opposite end of the spectrum, introverted, you are more internally focused and need to behave more like extroverts. Not only should you make an effort (and it is a huge effort for introverts) to communicate regularly with your team, but you also must make an effort to smile more and encourage those around you.
According to the article, openness includes your tendency to show intellectual curiosity, independence of judgment and a view of the forest (not just the trees). Although high scores on these dimensions show value for leadership roles, they do not help executives connect with others. Speculating on alternative viewpoints and seeking other perspectives can frustrate your team members who want clarity, consistency and direction from their leader. Good leaders either have a lieutenant who is grounded in day-to-day consistency or they limit themselves to exploring these options only a couple times a year.
Conversely, some executives are too conventional. The challenge for you if you are conventional is to move when not all the information is available. You need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and build up an openness to new experiences.
Agreeableness is how important it is to you to get along with others. In some industries, leaders who score low on agreeableness have an edge that causes focus that is invaluable and disruptive to group think. The problem is you can be too rational, competitive and tough-minded. Direct criticism is often not taken well and can lead to an inability to work well with your team. What you should do in this situation is focus on how you present your comments, with the goal to point out that the comments are related to the idea, not the person. Also, if you seem too competitive, your colleagues and subordinates may not trust you. There are various ways to combat this tendency, but most of them revolve around you being sensitive to how your message is received and frame it in a less threatening way.
On the other hand, some executives are too considerate. Although effective at enabling collaboration, you may have difficulty delivering negative feedback or making decisions that will upset some people even when it is in the company’s best interest. This attitude is actually not helpful to anybody and prolongs difficult situations. If this describes you, change your thinking from wanting to be liked to being perceived as fair.
The final trait is conscientiousness, which reflects the extent you want to structure and organize your life. Drive, reliability and persistence are important, but they can actually be dysfunctional if not properly directed.
One problem here is that too much attention to detail or perfectionism can cause you to lose the big picture, which could kill a company (creating a great mousetrap after mice are extinct). If you have this tendency, you need to ask if you are involved in a high leverage activity or is your time better applied elsewhere. You should also encourage your subordinates to challenge you when they feel your efforts are not well channeled.
The opposite problem is making decisions too quickly, without looking at the data thoroughly. Here, you should focus on the analytics behind key decision-making and see if there is a disconnect between your instincts and the data (always a good idea).
The important lesson here is that you need to look closely at yourself and your key personality traits. One good tool is to think about what traits people have frequently used to describe you; even if they may not reflect the inner you, they show what people think of you. There are no right or wrong traits (at least with these traits), what you should then do is moderate your behavior so you are as effective as possible and can lead your company to greatness. Do not change yourself. Just be yourself with more skill.