Beyond Personality: What Makes a Leader, and Can You Become One?
In American business, we often talk about leaders as if they were archetypes instead of people: borderline mystical figures with certain innate, inborn qualities that make them somehow better than the average grunt. And, the thinking goes, if we can just figure out what qualities make up the leader, we can ape those traits and become leaders ourselves.
The archetypal leader also comes with their own mythical origin story: at some point in the leader’s life, some moment of incredible inspiration strikes and changes everything forever. An apple falls on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, and, suddenly, he understands gravity. Bill Gates starts Microsoft in a garage, and now computers run the world.
Ask leadership expert and author Julia Tang Peters about leaders, and she’ll tell you we have it all wrong. “Leading and succeeding is a marathon. It’s not a sprint,” she says.
Peters outlines her theory of leadership in her new book, “Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make.” Based on extensive interviews with five major business leaders, the book contradicts the pop-culture stereotype of the leader as a great man with a great moment. Leadership, Peters discovered, is actually more systematic and quantifiable than we imagine.
“I found in my research that it’s five pivotal decisions, and not just a eureka turning point moment, which is what we mostly hear about,” Peters says of the birth of the leader. “It’s not one turning point — it’s five pivotal decisions, five stages, five opportunities to grow as a leader and expand your goal along the way. It’s a build.”
“A Different Kind of Book on Leadership”
Peters’ background uniquely equips her to study leadership with a critical, scientific gaze and write a book about it. She received her master’s of management from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and, following a successful business career, she earned a master’s of psychology from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy as well. From there, Peters became a licensed clinical therapist and offered marriage and family therapy.
It was during her years as a therapist that Peters began to move toward leadership development. She conducted marital and family therapy with quite a few executive leaders and found that, much of the time, work and family issues were thoroughly integrated. “That actually became a very natural migration of combining my business experience and psychology experience into this professional development work,” Peters explains.
“It fits right into my pivotal decisions framework,” Peters laughs while remarking on her transition from psychology to personal development (and more on that framework later). “Many people thought, ‘Wow, that’s quite a career change. I can now look back and see how it was kind of always meant to be. Leadership development and writing this book really feel like what I have been building toward all along — not necessarily knowing that all along.”
Peters invokes Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, in which he told graduates, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Peters adds, “There is an internal consistency in what you pursue and how you move towards that moment — that profession — where you can see then how it all came together.”
And while Peters disagrees that success often comes from sudden inspiration, she does admit that there was an element of luck in her discovery and formulation of her book’s central thesis, the eponymous pivot points: “It was actually a serendipitous eureka moment,” she laughs in disbelief.
After working with leaders from all sorts of companies and industries, Peters says she saw a need for “a different kind of book on leadership.” People would often ask her to recommend good books on leadership, and she realized she simply couldn’t. “You know, there aren’t that many of them,” she reflects.
At the same time that Peters recognized a lack of quality leadership literature, she also noticed that the culture-at-large was in need of a new picture of a leader. “When I started this, we were in the depths of the Great Recession, and all the leaders we were hearing about [and] reading about in the news, were the fallen, the disgraced, the convicted,” she says. “It really lit my fire — we really need a better understanding of leadership. So I started out to take a look at a different kind of leader than the ones we were hearing about — the kind of leaders who would inspire us to want to lead, and inspire us to be living our values over the long haul and not become the fallen, the disgraced, the convicted.”
Peters handpicked five people whom she saw as not only major business leaders, but also as exemplary human beings in general, including Bud Frankel of Frankel & Company and John W. Rogers, Jr., of Ariel Investments, LLC. Peters conducted very thorough, in-depth interviews with all of these leaders in an effort to learn about their success. And then the eureka moment hit her: “It was only after the in-depth interviews with these great leaders that I saw a pattern within their stories,” Peters says. “There were five decisions that built their success but also helped them grow as leaders along the way, so that they could build upon each foundation of success.”
These five decisions are the pivot points after which Peters’ book is named.
The Pivot Points: Five Decisions We All Face
Peters calls the decisions “pivot points” because they are the moments that turn “ordinary career paths into leader-making journeys,” she writes. These pivot points are not specific decisions, but types of decisions that all leaders make on their journeys.
- The Launching Decision — this decision “lays the foundation for leadership,” according to Peters. It is a decision to commit to developing a mastery of some specialized skill set.
- The Turning Point Decision — “On the road to developing mastery … you inevitably face a major opportunity or problem,” Peters says. The turning point decision is that opportunity or problem. When faced with the turning point decision, leaders take bold directions that solve problems or seize opportunities. “The turning point decision is building the platform that differentiates your leadership,” Peters adds.
- The Tipping Point Decision — After the turning point decision sets a leader’s success in motion, they inevitably face a fundamental barrier that they must break by making another bold decision. The barriers can be internal or external says Peters — what matters is that leaders overcome them. “The idea here is that it’s true: you’re either growing or you’re slowly dying. Even with success, these leaders never say ‘good enough is good enough,” Peters says. “Breaking through that barrier enables you to fulfill your full leadership potential.” The tipping point may seem like a leader is reaching their peak, but Peters notes that the leaders all faced another pivotal decision shortly after their tipping point: to recommit or not.
- The Recommitment Decision — “If you think about it, it resonates intuitively: after 20, 25 years of working really hard, achieving a good deal at something, you face that pivotal decision of, ‘Have I done everything I can do here or want to do here? Or what else is beckoning, what else should I be looking at?’” Peters explains. According to Peters, the recommitment decision brings clarity to leaders. “They have newfound purpose that was worth the recommitment,” she says. “It moves the goal posts out further, so that, after a tipping point decision, the recommitment decision brought them to the peak of their leadership and really established their legacy.”
- The Letting Go Decision — Everyone has to face a letting go decision at some point, Peters says. As the one-job career becomes increasingly rare, more and more people will face letting go decisions more and more often. But, as Peters notes, for leaders the letting go decisions is about more than just walking away. “It’s more than the decision to leave something to go to something else,” she says. “It’s the strategic decision of a leader to create succession planning and prepare for the day when you are going to pass the torch in a way that enables to next leader to be setting themselves up for success.”
Every leader Peters interviewed faced all of these pivot point decisions. By responding smartly and strategically, the leaders grew personally and helped their businesses reach new success. But does everyone face these pivot point decisions, and, if so, why isn’t everyone a successful leader?
According to Peters, the key is decision-making style.
What Kind of Decision-Maker Are You?
When Peters identified the pivot points, she wondered if they applied to everyone, not just leaders. So she decided to conduct a quantitative survey of college-educated adults in the U.S. Of course, to conduct such a survey, she first had to define what she was studying. “Leadership is a very complex, complicated concept,” Peters says. “You ask 20 people to define leadership, you’ll get 20 different definitions.”
What Peters did was look at the leaders she interviewed and extract the common essential elements. “I looked at these leaders and what I learned from them about leadership and decided that it’s really not about traits and styles, which is what we read about,” she says.
Leadership, Peters decided, was firstly about accountability. “That’s mainly about holding yourself accountable,” she says, “but then it’s about holding yourself accountable for what?”
Peters found that leaders hold themselves accountable for ingenuity — for ideas and solutions that are new and innovative. “The opposite of ingenuity is not nothing, it’s the status quo,” Peters says. “The status quo is the greatest enemy of ingenuity.”
So Peters created a chart to plot possible behaviors: a y-axis running from “high accountability” to “low accountability” and an x-axis running from “ingenuity” to “status quo.” This chart creates four quadrants that represent four decision-making styles that people use to tackle the pivot points:
The Leader has high accountability and ingenuity.
The Manager has high accountability, but holds themselves accountable to the status quo. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, Peters says: “The manager’s job is important. Leaders need, in most cases, good managers. However, the important thing here is that the work of managing is not the work of leading.”
The Clock Puncher has low accountability and sticks to the status quo. They punch in, do their jobs, and then punch out. “You can find clock punchers in high places,” says Peters. “They’re doing just enough to keep their job, but nothing new comes out of them.”
The Wanderer has low accountability but very high ingenuity. This can make them seem like leaders, but their low accountability hinders their success. “Wanderers can have great ideas, and they can speak very passionately about ideas. They can even talk about ways to execute ideas,” Peters says. “However, over time, wanderers do not make those ideas happen.”
With her terms clearly defined, Peters conducted her quantitative survey. She found that, yes, the vast majority of people did face the pivot points, but they did not become leaders because they did not make decisions like leaders. Instead, they made decisions like managers, clock punchers, or wanderers. “Indeed, leadership is about accountability and ingenuity, and most people in professional careers do indeed face these pivot points,” Peters says. “How they face the decisions, though, corresponds to these four quadrants.”
Your decision-making style can be the difference between growing into a successful leader and sitting around as a clock puncher.
So — Can You Become a Leader?
“The big message here is that, first of all, it’s about recognizing the pivotal decisions,” Peters says.
You will make a lot of decisions in your life, but not all of them will be pivotal. You need to be aware of the possibilities of pivotal decisions. “You can’t always know in the moment that it is going to be pivotal, but recognize that it could be pivotal,” says Peters.
Recognizing pivotal decisions is not enough, though. You need to be fully aware of the decision-making styles, and you need to handle pivotal decisions the way a leader would. “There will always be setbacks, barriers, resistance from other people in an organization,” says Peters. “As a leader, you’re making that decision knowingly. ‘I’m going to face resistance, but I am going to make it happen.’ That is the person who will be on the leader’s journey.”
For more about Julia Tang Peters, visit her website.