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Correlation or Causation – The Trouble with Studying Successful Leader Characteristics

An article came through my feed the other day called 22 Habits of Successful Leaders from entrepreneur.com. It was an interesting article, but could have been more accurately titled, 22 Quirky Habits of some Famous Successful People. I realize it wouldn’t have gotten nearly the number of clicks, but why does the original title resonate? Because the implication is that here are the habits of successful leaders that perhaps we can emulate to be successful ourselves. But is that a good approach to developing ourselves as leaders? If you read the article, some of the habits are appealing. I particularly like Mark Twain’s “don’t hold a grudge” and Michael Jordan’s “success through failure”. But I don’t think Benjamin Franklin’s nude “air baths” or Mark Zuckerburg’s penchant to wear the same outfit every day are going to be my ticket to success as a leader! Even though these are habits which obviously correlate to successful people, we can’t necessarily say these habits are responsible for their success. It’s the difference between correlation and causation and leaders who confuse the two will be, well, confused.

At one time the trend in leadership development was to study famous leaders and attempt to dissect and emulate their characteristics. That approach failed to consistently develop better leaders. Why? Because if you try to be someone you are not, the chances of pulling it off are directly related to your abilities as an actor, not your abilities as a leader. People can usually spot a fake, and the results are usually not good. One of my fondest memories of a leadership student was one who confessed that she was considering quitting when she was promoted into a leadership position. She didn’t think she could be “that person.” What she discovered was that she could be a leader AND be herself, and that made all the difference.

Don’t get me wrong, we can learn from successful leaders. Just be sure that you are taking the right lessons that fit your own approach. You don’t have to take nude air baths and you can go ahead and buy some more shirts. Find the Great Leader within yourself and you too will have others looking for the “secret sauce” that makes you so successful.

Be great!

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