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  • Writer's pictureDavid de Souza

The Lessons from Leadership

Updated: May 23, 2023

"Generalize things with caution as reality is very complex." - Felipe Cotrim'

Felipe Cotrim is studying for his PhD is in Management and his research is focused on leadership. He has a substack, about leadership insights and lessons. You can connect with Felipe here.

1. What do you consider ‘beauty’ in leadership?

I think humility is beauty in leadership. Power can change – or reveal – people, so being able to stay humble is truly beautiful, especially when it comes to big roles like head of government or CEO of a major company. I deeply admire humble leaders facing high-stakes conditions. For me, it's just beautiful when the most powerful person who can basically do whatever they want, stay humble.

2. What life lessons have you learned from leadership?

From my time studying leadership, I'd say extrapolate findings with caution. Generalizing things in complex subjects like leadership (and many social phenomena) is complicated as it depends on research conditions that sometimes are difficult to obtain. I tend not to generalize things in life too when I hear stories from people, rules for success, and "steps to happiness". I'm not saying that rules aren't helpful or that I don't listen to people's stories, I'm just saying I now generalize things with caution as reality is very complex.

And if you mean from my modest personal experience with leading, some things that come to mind are: have confidence, be kind and humble, prepare, block time in your calendar for deep work, and ask many questions.

3. What are the main principles of leadership?

(i) There is No universal definition of Leadership

When it comes to definitions, there are some good ones such as: "the capacity to translate vision into reality" – Warren Bennis, but studies have found hundreds of different definitions and we don't seem to agree on one.....and I personally like the idea that we don't have a universal definition.

(ii) Leadership is More Nurture than Nature.

Even though it is hard to measure, the best estimates we have from research with identical twins, indicate that leadership is 2/3 made and 1/3 born. So, of course your DNA matters, but development matters more, and that's an exciting thought for me.

(iii) Leadership is context sensitive.

We have to be better at framing things when discussing leadership, because being a sports team leader is different from being a politician or a war captain, so context matters a lot.

4. What small things make a big difference in leadership?

Focusing on developing meta skills.

There's a great study published in 2013 by JooBee Yeow and Robin Martin that encourages people to develop self-regulation, a meta-competency. They designed a field experiment where business students trained in self-regulation were significantly more effective in both leadership behaviors and results compared to their classmates who did not receive the training. In their conclusion, the authors drew upon the old saying of "give a man a fish and you feed him for today, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life" and argued that leadership programs designed to develop self-regulation are similar to training leaders "to fish". Developing a meta skill is not always a small thing, but in the case of this study, it was only a 5-hour training, and it made a big difference.

5. What is the biggest misconception or the biggest mistake that people make about leadership?

People romanticize leadership. There's a beautiful study published in 1985 by James Meindl called the romance of leadership. Through their data and analysis, they claim that people unduly give leadership credit for positive outcomes and unduly lay blame for negative ones. In other words, people think leadership explains more than it actually does. For example, if a company is doing very well, people will credit the head of that company while other factors may have also contributed to its success. Leaders are certainly major contributors, but the hero-villain mindset isn't helpful as things are not that linear in practice. Let's stop romanticizing leadership.

6. Which single concept from leadership deserves to be more widely known?

Sensemaking. It's not exactly a leadership concept, but sensemaking is this wonderful theory in management that has so many applications including leadership. It refers to how we structure the unknown so we're able to act in it. Leaders face so many unknowns, people face so many unknowns that it's kind of a key capacity in life. I wish people knew more about the art and science of creating meanings. I strongly recommend the book Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick.

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