Natural Leader or Naturally Dominant?

Recently, in one of our Path Forward leadership workshops, I heard one of our students describe herself as “not a natural leader.”  

Why would someone describe themselves in this way? Even though I’ve heard people saying this about themselves throughout my long life, this hearing made me think, in what for me are different ways about what it means to be a “natural leader,” and what it means to NOT be a “natural leader.” 

I’ve begun to wonder if much of what we label as natural leadership is in fact natural dominance, and that this natural dominance looks in certain circumstances like the type of behavior we reflexively respond to as “leadership.” 

And in some circumstances, a dominant approach is what leadership should look like if we think of it as representing a strong results orientation, a willingness to take appropriate risks, comfort with being a public figure, a competitive orientation, and the ability to make the tough calls.  

And of course, a dominant style can represent some very negative leadership characteristics such as rigidity, narcissism, power-tripping, and political maneuvering. 

What we can say is that a dominant style is highly visible, and maybe that’s why we see it as “natural.” It’s right there in front of us, expressing itself in very public ways, often with what seems like effortless energy. Other less-dominant forms of leadership are quieter, less obvious, and less recognized. 

Dominance is an interesting characteristic when we consider how we react to it. We can be very uncomfortable around it but still need it or even admire it at the same time. We may resent the success or power of a dominant person while also wanting to attach ourselves to the dominant person’s influence for our own benefit. In a challenging or risky situation, we may very much welcome the strength and decisiveness of the dominant person, while also feeling like we got run over by them.  

Dominance, like all leadership characteristics, is useful or not depending on the circumstance. Therefore the problem isn’t whether or not dominant behavior exists in organizational culture, but whether or not it’s simply a default style, displayed and applied even when other styles or approaches might be more helpful.  

Dominant leadership can also be downright sexist, abusive, and immoral, but not if it’s balanced with wisdom, integrity, vision, compassion, and intellect. Dominant leadership behavior in the service of good and compassionate intentions can be very effective.  

Let’s be careful about the “natural leader” label – it may really be a recognition of a person’s natural dominance rather than a broad assessment of their leadership effectiveness. And if this dominant style is what the culture understands as leadership it may cause less dominant people to label themselves as less natural leaders when in fact they are operating – or could be operating — in more nuanced ways.   

If the culture puts too much value on the dominant characteristics of leaders it may confuse style with substance. A strong, decisive leader can be helpful to have around, but so is that person who gets things done with a different style – one that isn’t broadly recognized as “natural leadership.”  

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Sarah Thomson

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