I call it the leadership toolbox, a model for leadership development that focuses on the tools available to you. After years of helping leaders become more effective by identifying their styles, I needed a way to talk about the behaviors and mental models that come naturally to us. The “toolbox” metaphor fit — a place where we keep all of the techniques that help us achieve results.

You come into your first leadership role with a set of tools that’s unique to you. Some of these may be genetically based while others are learned early in life. You may not know they’re there, but no one gets that first leadership role without some innate leadership skills.

Those tools will serve you well in many situations. If you continue moving into more senior roles, however, sooner or later you will run into challenges that require tools that don’t come naturally to you. Very few people are naturally gifted at firing people, for example. But almost everyone will eventually be required to terminate a poor performer. If you can’t or won’t do it, you won’t be an effective leader.

Learning new tools and techniques for strategic leadership

Leadership development resources are there to help you find new tools for your toolbox before you need them. You don’t have to ditch the leadership tools you’re already using, but you do have to add to them. That’s often really hard to do precisely because these new skills don’t come naturally. To get all the tools for effective leadership you need, you have to be willing to experiment with new, sometimes uncomfortable skills, practicing them and figuring out how to incorporate them into your leadership style.

Even with all the work in the world, there will be some techniques that stay outside your leader’s toolbox simply because they’re too far from your natural style to be useful. As you acquire new skills, you also have to learn when and how to use them. The ability to rapidly assess a situation and identify the best tool to resolve it is a key aspect of leadership agility.

The leadership toolbox and free trait theory

The toolbox model is an easy-to-understand visual I’ve developed as I’ve coached leaders for all kinds of companies. It’s not based on extensive research or sophisticated theory. So I was fascinated recently when a colleague of mine, Tom Bateman, introduced me to free trait theory. The researcher, Brian Little, proposes that our behavior is based on three influences:

  • Biogenic sources: genetic and evolutionary based influences, which we’re usually unconscious of
  • Sociogenic sources: social rules, norms, and scripts, again usually unconscious
  • Ideogenic sources: values, commitments, and “core projects,” which usually require conscious thought and reflection

According to Little, we sometime demonstrate “free traits.” These are behaviors which are not congruent with our basic biological dispositions, but they enable us to successfully pursue the values and commitments that matter to us. Sounds a lot like my toolbox model, where we must make use of tools that require us to learn new behaviors. In his research, Little points out that this is hard work and takes more energy than “doing what comes naturally.”

How does a leader decide when to use one of those acquired tools/free traits? Here’s where self-knowledge becomes critically important. As you watch yourself in leadership situations, you’ll discover that you have predictable patterns — what Little would call biogenic or sociogenic influences. For example, “When I am angry, I tend to clam up” or “When something is unfamiliar to me, I tend to be very cautious.”

There’s nothing wrong with either of those patterns. Sometimes being quiet is the smartest thing to do when you’re annoyed, and caution in the face of the unfamiliar has saved many lives. But mindlessly allowing these patterns to rule your behavior can also cause big trouble for a leader.

Pursuing leadership development regardless of model

I coach my clients that when they become aware of a pattern they should “lean the other way.” That’s not to say they should fire off an angry email or charge headlong into danger. Instead, they should actively work to consider a reaction outside of their immediate response: “Maybe this is a moment when I should give voice to my anger,” for example, or “This is unfamiliar, but it looks really exciting — I should jump right in.” Leaning the other way is about making a conscious choice to do what is most effective in any given situation, rather than being ruled by unconscious patterns.

One more point about leaning — your feet stay in the same place. As a leader, you aren’t required to become someone you are not. You can stay planted in your own nature and character and still develop flexibility and responsiveness to the situation at hand. Trees don’t have to pull up their roots to bend in the breeze, after all.     

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