Evolution and Leadership

My first management position was at a restaurant. It was a chain steakhouse in a one-horse town in Maryland. A few months into that role, I was the sole manager on duty for a weekend night shift that was going poorly.

Feeling my frustration mounting, I did the most mature and leaderly thing my 19-year-old mind could think of – I tipped over the break table, causing everything on it to crash loudly to the floor.

I felt a momentary rush of power as people scurried away from my obvious anger, setting off to do whatever they could do to right the sinking ship that was this shift. Word apparently spread quickly throughout the staff because, before I had walked another ten feet through the kitchen, I was confronted by a member of the waitstaff.

Louvre Museum [Public domain]

I forget her exact words, but they boiled down to “You’re being an idiot. This is your shift. If you want it fixed, go fix it or find another job.” She was right, and jarringly so. I’m pretty sure I didn’t fix that shift, but I never flipped a break table again in my restaurant career. Thus began a lifelong interest in leadership and management.

I should also note that, several years later, the woman who confronted me agreed to marry me and we will celebrate 25 years of marriage next year.

I recently had the opportunity to complete a DISC profile of myself. I scored as a fairly high ‘S,’ which means I value cooperation, steadiness, collaboration, and planning and that I approach situations with a calm demeanor. No one was particularly surprised by this, least of all me. Prior to my current role, I spent 24 years as a consultant and the traits of an ‘S’ could be bundled under the heading of ‘how to survive as a consultant.’

As a consultant, you are never the ‘product owner,’ so you rarely have the final decision on anything. Consensus-building is the order of the day. (If you are a consultant and your customer is willing to make you the product owner, run away quickly. Your customer is trying to outsource risk.) So, to be successful, you need to be an ‘S.’

As the anecdote at the start of this post illustrates, it was not always that way for me. I started as a high ‘D‘ and evolved over time. I think that’s a common path for people in leadership roles. Culturally (at least in America), we are bombarded with the image of the ‘strong’ leader with a commanding presence and a dominating approach. (This is especially true right now.) This type of leadership is often associated with the military and, at a superficial level, that association has some validity.

The DISC methodology is very trait-centric. As such, it is easy to understand, but that’s really just the starting point in understanding leadership. Leadership has been the subject of a vast amount of scientific inquiry, especially over the last 40 years. The synthesis of all of this inquiry boils down to the fact that leadership is varied in its approach and that a leader can adapt and evolve their approach over time.

As a walking unscientific anecdote, I have had such an evolution in my own career and, in DISC terms, I have spent time in the D, S, and C quadrants. I have tended to gravitate to leadership roles in whatever I happen to be doing – work, recreational sports leagues, community organizations, etc. I somehow seem to find myself in charge of something, though I have recently begun to hone my ability to say “no” in order to attend to some of my own priorities.

As I evolved away from an authoritarian approach, I spent a long time in the ‘C’ quadrant, preferring to lead by example. My approach was to be as proficient as I could be and set the standard, but not be explicitly in charge. This led to being able to work on high-value tasks and projects and it also served me well in my early consulting career. The skill of the ‘S’ quadrant may be the key to survival in consulting, but the skills of the ‘C’ quadrant are what gets you in the door in the first place.

The longer I spent in consulting, the more my ‘D’ quadrant skills faded into the background. Consensus-building became baked into my personality and was instinctive, even when it didn’t serve me well.

But the evolution continues. As I have been out of consulting for a couple of years, I have felt some ‘D’ quadrant tendencies emerging. While no one was surprised that I was a high ‘S,’ one colleague said to me later that he’s seen flashes of ‘D.’ Those muscles, however, have atrophied a bit and I don’t have fine motor control over them yet. Typically, the ‘D’ traits emerge when I begin feeling impatient. Luckily, my wife appears to me in my head, standing in that long ago kitchen. So far, I have managed not to flip a proverbial break table, nor do I want to.

To paraphrase Peter Northouse, the role of a leader is to encourage a group of people to work toward a common outcome. In my case, the strategic goals of my company are the outcome. At any point in time, it may be necessary to deploy any of the skills described in the DISC methodology. In order to be successful, leaders must have a diverse toolbox and must develop the proficiency to know when and how to deploy those tools.