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Impossible Leadership Situations

How to look like a leader

We know that image often matters. But how important is it that a leader ‘looks like’ what we expect? Research has shown it can be important, and problematic, and has far-reaching implications beyond what you might expect.

Here’s the core issue - if an individual conforms to our specific ‘mind model’ of what we think a leader should do/be like/look like – then we grant leadership to them. We acknowledge them as a leader. We follow them. We speak well of them. In politics – we vote for them.

In other words, I tend to ‘grant’ someone credibility as a leader when they appear to be or act like what I think a leader should do or be.

But what happens when they don’t? This is where the importance of people’s expectations about leaders can become really apparent and also a bit troubling.

‘Ann’, is a successful senior executive whom I have known for years. She is a well-respected leader in her industry. She has been successful because she was bright and talented and a good leader --- and also because people under her leadership (and around her) ‘granted’ her credibility as a leader. Her direct reports in essence were saying “she’s someone we’re willing to follow.” And so they did. And the team was successful, again and again.

But this wasn’t always the case. At a mid-point in her career, Ann was assigned to a role in the Middle East. Upon her arrival, it became very clear that her new all male team would not ‘grant’ her any leadership credibility. It didn’t matter what she did. They wouldn’t grant her credibility in large part because she didn’t fit one very important aspect of what they thought a leader should be like or look like. It didn’t matter what she did then – her team would not go along with her leadership. Despite all interventions and attempts, they wouldn’t listen to her. The team was a mess.

Was it something about her as a leader? The answer of course is yes and no. It was about her – but it was not something about her that was fair or related to her abilities as a leader. It WAS something related to her follower’s perceptions of her credibility. Without granting her credibility – she could not be successful as a leader, and nor would her team.

One leader. One industry. Two situations and two very different outcomes having possibly little to nothing to do with her as a leader, but everything to do with her followers and their mindsets.

This phenomena though is not just about gender or demographic variables. If I have a strong expectation for a leader to be caring and nurturing and I see someone who is dominant and insensitive, I will resist them in both obvious, as well as subtle but powerful, ways.

This whole process of granting leadership most certainly influences a leader’s chances for success. If someone just so happens to not fit a mind model of what followers are expecting --- the leader then has an uphill battle to fight in being successful and may not succeed even if their approach or ideas could have otherwise been very effective. In the end, if a leader fails (or succeeds), it is partly due to how well a leader matches the mind models of followers -- who always have some choice, or not, to ascribe the idea of ‘leader’ to someone.  

Effective leadership can take on many forms, and by having narrow and rigid mind models, we may be losing opportunities for great leaders who do things just a little differently to have a fair shot. Maybe, just maybe, they can show us other ways that are even better. At least we must ask ourselves whether they deserve a chance. Are there mind models about leaders and leadership that you need to challenge for yourself today?

About the writer

Nathan J. Hiller, Ph.D.
Academic Director
Associate Professor of Managment and International Business