Business Columns & Blogs

In a rut? If you’re a leader, you’d better not be

If you want to lead, don’t get stuck in “That’s just who I am” mud.
If you want to lead, don’t get stuck in “That’s just who I am” mud. Miami Herald

“That’s just who I am.”

I cringe when I hear that from a person who is (or wants to be) a better leader, especially when the statement is intended to explain away his or her behavior. Too often, we use that phrase to excuse ourselves from making changes, or even trying.

In contrast, the best leaders get out of ruts, or behaviors they learned years ago, and try to be versatile. They adjust to situations and people and find ways to reach out in ways that may differ from their own default states.

Often this involves good listening. It also involves the ability to read others — their body language, their words, their silence.

I remember observing a leader years ago in Boise who adjusted well to wildly different audiences and situations even though he didn’t speak English. He relied on watching and “reading” the groups he met.

He was a Vietnamese university president who visited Boise State with five colleagues, one of whom spoke English well and acted as the interpreter. We had asked the president to speak to some classes, to the chamber of commerce and with our university leaders.

In each setting, he gave an impromptu talk of maybe 10 minutes. With the students, he was lively and humorous and acted like the best of teachers, engaging the students even though they and he had no common spoken language. With the business leaders, he was curious and serious, opening the way for future business connections. With our university leaders, he exchanged ideas about being an administrator and dealing with challenges common to both sides of the ocean.

His own body language ranged from quick movements to motionless. His smile ranged from huge to minimal. The tone of his voice shifted from animated to moderated. In other words, he was versatile.

And that’s what any good leader learns to do.

Instead of expecting others to adjust to your favorite style or mode of operating, consider what you can do to match and adjust to another person or situation.

Remain true to yourself, of course —to your values, your core. But adjust to different situations. That is part of your role as a leader.

And the next time you’re tempted to say, “That’s just who I am,” ask yourself if you really want to stay in that rut.