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You’re Not The Leader You Think You Are

In 1993 I was a software developer fresh out of school. I was determined to be a “Renaissance Programmer.” Someone who could do every aspect of development, not unlike the “Full-Stack Developer” of the current era. I was sure I would have nothing to do with management and “climbing the corporate ladder.”

I remember sitting in my first divisional meeting and listening to Tom Reynolds speak about our strategy. Tom led the division. His vision filled me with inspiration and sometimes gave me chills. Throughout my career, I looked up to Tom. He was a role model for me and a great source of inspiration.

Fifteen years later, Tom had been promoted, and I stood before that same division as their leader. I felt confident in my abilities and the achievements that had earned me this role. Like many of us, I also had a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. I was still the fresh-out-of-school software developer, the newly promoted manager who kept the challenging programming problems for himself, and the young director who had no idea how to manage managers.

I now know my story is more common than I expected. This story may resonate with you personally or remind you of a senior leader you know.

A Picture of Effectiveness

The image above is the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) of one of my clients (shared anonymously with their permission). It illustrates a pattern I have seen with several leaders I have worked with.

It’s not essential to understand the full LCP for today’s post. I’ll highlight a few key items.

  • The bottom half of the circle represents our reactive tendencies. These may have served us well early in our careers, but as senior leaders, they hold us back when we continue to rely on them. High reactive scores have a strong negative correlation to overall leadership effectiveness. Said differently, the most effective leaders have low reactive scores.
  • The top half of the circle represents our creative tendencies. These tendencies have a strong positive correlation to overall leadership effectiveness. The most effective leaders have high creative scores.
  • The inner circle shows a summary view of the tendencies. The outer ring breaks each area out into more detailed tendencies.
  • The light green shading indicates how others evaluated the leader.

So with that understanding, scroll up and look at this leader’s LCP results, and see what arises for you.

Based on the feedback from the evaluators, this is an exceptional leader. The LCP’s research suggests (conservatively) that this leader is at least six times more effective than an average leader and ten times more effective than a poor leader. Put simply, if you are hiring a CEO, you want a profile that looks like this.

A Tale of Two Assessments

You have probably noticed the dark green lines on the circle. These lines indicate how the leader assessed themselves. Scroll back up and look at the differences between the shading and the lines.

Based on this leader’s self-assessment, we would assume they are an ineffective leader. Their reactive scores are consistently high, and their creative scores are consistently low. The bottom scale shows overall leadership effectiveness. In the eyes of the evaluators, this leader is 95th percentile for overall leadership effectiveness. The leader assesses themselves below the 10th percentile.

It is easy to look at these results and think this leader must be an anomaly. I’m discovering this is a common scenario for leaders with high scores. The most effective leaders often score themselves much lower than the other evaluators.

I invite you to take a moment to consider why that might be the case.

Shifting Perspective

Several patterns arise as I explore this phenomenon – both with my clients and within my own experiences.

To begin with, in the US (and many other cultures), most of us are taught from an earlier age to practice humility. Being proud or confident can be perceived as arrogance. Modesty is valued in our senior leaders and often contributes to their success. As a result, a humble leader will practice that humility in their self-assessment. They set a very high bar for success and are uncomfortable asserting they are close to it.

The other pattern I see is the one I fell into as I became Vice President and moved into Tom’s role. As VP, I would have rated myself the way this leader did. My perspective of myself spans my entire life. At that moment, I was Vice President, but I was fully aware of all the years that led up to that moment. I was aware of all the leadership mistakes I made along the way. I was aware of all the years I was not a leader. It was easy and natural to focus on where I had been in the past rather than where I was in the present.

We get a distorted picture when we view ourselves through our own eyes. Countless studies have demonstrated that those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves. The key to closing the gap between how others see us and how we see ourselves is to build awareness of the perspectives of others.

For many leaders, getting the results of the LCP is a powerful tool to shift that perspective. After overcoming their initial shock with the results, this leader realized they should trust their instincts more. They should have more confidence in their abilities and lean in more fully.

I did not have the benefit of an LCP to help me shift my perspective. Over time, division members began to say things to me that helped grow my awareness. Gradually I began to accept and embrace that division members viewed me the way I had viewed Tom. I began to realize that when I addressed the division, there were programmers sitting in the audience getting inspired the way Tom had inspired me. I shifted my perspective and began to fully embody the role of VP the way Tom had always embodied it in my mind, and I recognized the impact I was having on the division members. Most importantly, I stopped second-guessing myself and placed a premium on the feedback I received from others. 

Putting It Into Practice

If this story resonates with you personally, consider the perspectives discussed here.

  • Think back to a prior leader you admired who held a role similar to the one you currently have. 
  • Embody your role as that leader embodied it, and recognize that others may look up to you the way you looked up to that leader. 
  • Recognize there are people in the company who don’t know you as anything but the leader you are now.

If this article reminds you of an incredible leader in your life who may not fully appreciate their gifts, let them know. Please share this post with them and tell them it reminds you of them. Tell them that they inspire you. Tell them you are grateful for their leadership.

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