One Size Fits All?

"Like it or not, we're dominated by American management processes. It's a reality, but it's not necessarily good."

The comment came over dinner with four senior managers from four different countries last night, one from the US, one from Asia, and two from Europe.

There was some resignation in the speaker's voice, but also a frustration at the lack of cultural awareness that can be seen in multinational organizations.

It seems that the Financial Times (or at least one columnist writing in its pages) would agree. This quote appeared in Monday's edition: "Many models of western business schools do not suit other cultures. Go a few hundred kilometres from the main urban centres in Europe and you enter a different reality." ("One Leadership Model Cannot Fit All Cultures").

Both the rueful executive at my dinner table and the Financial Times writer are correct--one size does not fit all when it comes to leadership. Good leaders seek to understand the circumstances and then adapt their style to those circumstances in order to reach the goal. It is a big mistake to stick to any model when circumstances call for something different. Models can end up being handcuffs, so good leaders learn many approaches--they have a full toolkit that they can reach into and find just the right solution.

Interestingly enough, a model that does seem to be universal is the Enneagram. My four companions and I had spent the previous few hours talking about their personality styles; the two Europeans were both Threes, the Asian and the person from the US were both Nines. They were different of course, everyone is unique while also sharing characteristics with others of their same Ennea-type. There were also noticeable cultural differences among the four. However, both the Nines were hampered from being more effective in their roles by their tendency to overdo their striving to be peaceful; both Threes were hindered by their striving to be outstanding. Those tendencies manifested in slightly different ways, but the patterns were clear.

It was a fascinating conversation to hear of the complexity of working with peers from other cultures and dealing with bosses and subordinates in an even wider range of cultures, struggling with an organization attempting to force a homogenous leadership style onto them. Coming up with a single solution to such a high-level of complexity is a fool's errand. But it was great to see how the Enneagram could serve as an anchor, something that truly was universal that could be used as a compass to help each leader pick out the right path.

What's It All About?

I was at a graduation celebration the other night and mentioned to a friend that I had started a blog.
"What's on it--the usual BS that people put on blogs?" he asked.
"Well, actually, I like to think that it's a bit more substantive than that," I said.
"Yeah, well, everyone thinks their blog is more substantive than that," he replied. "But they're usually just BS."

The exchange made me start thinking about the scope of this blog, something I've been wrestling with. Some people have encouraged me to blog about my work with the Enneagram; others have encouraged me to focus on my work with leaders in a broader sense. The truth is, I want to write about both; and sometimes other things that just happen to be on my mind.

In 2005, as a bit of a thought experiment, I started mapping leadership attributes to the Enneagram diagram. I'm always leery of leadership models--leadership is an extremely complex topic and I always smirk at any list of leadership qualities or attributes that claim to be complete or ultimate; to be necessary and sufficient. One simply cannot create such a list because each situation requires a different set of leadership skills; what works in one environment often fails miserably in another.

That said, there is value in heuristics--mental models or "rules of thumb" that serve as useful guides when applied properly. I used the components of the Enneagram to create three leadership heuristics: one related to self-management, one to relationships, and one related to the way a leader should think. (Click here for an article that describes the model.)

As I began thinking about this blog, it occurred to me that the topics I would be writing about here could also map to this set of models, particularly the model for leadership thinking.

As we see from the diagram above, one can track three attributes of the way a leader should think, and these attributes map to points 1, 7, and 4 of the Enneagram.

At the top of the diagram, corresponding to Point 1, we find rigor. Rigor has some interesting definitions, including "harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment," but here we refer to "strict precision." Clear, precise, and critical thinking is absolutely fundamental to the way a leader should face the world. Because they have to make decisions that affect the lives of many people, leaders do not have the luxury of fantastical or wishful thinking; they must face facts, choose a path based on those facts, and live with the consequences. Leaders without good critical-thinking skills are rarely successful.

However, an over-emphasis on rigor can have a deadening effect (hence the term rigor mortis), and leaders must leaven rigor with the attributes found at Point 7 (curiosity) and Point 4 (creativity).

Curiosity, in this case, refers to a wide-ranging interest in the world. Good leaders are curious people; they want to know about the world beyond the scope of their work, and enjoy learning for its own sake. Curiosity can often seem like a diversion, and often leads to dead-ends, but it is also the source of most new discoveries.

Creativity refers to the desire to bring something into existence. It is the force that drives a leader; the desire to build, to make something happen. It is the impulse that says, OK, enough talk, let's do it. It is the need to be able to sit back after the fact and say, Look what we did. Look what we brought about.

The three points of the diagram are interrelated and interactive. Rigor is the force that controls and sets boundaries, that challenges ideas and maps a path forward. Curiosity is the urge to look at things anew, to learn something today that we didn't know yesterday, and to store away what we find because it may be useful tomorrow. Creativity is the desire to turn ideas and plans into reality. All three qualities must live in a dynamic tension with each other, setting boundaries while maintaining flexibility.

So, it may be the "usual BS" that people put on their blogs, but at least I know what the theme is: what I will be writing about tracks to the nine points of the attribute model, and these three attributes in particular. I will be writing about the Enneagram for sure, but I will also be focused on critical thinking, about the act of leadership, and, sometimes, things that simply strike my fancy.