Welcome to my blog, one in a series exploring leadership characteristics. Here I draw on my own leadership experience and my work as an executive coach to share with you my thoughts on what makes for a great leader. I consider there are a number of leadership characteristics a leader needs to display and work on to be more than average. I want in this blog to focus on the theme of difference or diversity in leaders and leadership teams.

Please don’t think this is for someone else in your team or that I will make a moral or quotas argument about board diversity. I want to talk instead about the business, rational and logical case to love difference. This is really NOT an add-on to your business or something that your human resource team can lead on for you. You need to pay attention to this yourself to be more successful than your competitors.

I love to coach leaders as they identify their challenges, their business goals and grow their capability, confidence and self-awareness. I had the honour recently of coaching a leader who was looking to expand his team. When exploring what he needed in his team he boldly said:

I need to bring in someone with a very different profile and skillset to me and the rest of the team. I know it will be challenging and the organisation might find it uncomfortable. But, this place will only grow and develop a really engaging vision if I recruit difference.”

He is a leader with a clear goal, he is after DIFFERENCE and he knows why it matters to the growth of the organisation. I think he knows something about the vital role difference plays in top teams and organisations. I know from my own career and personal life how difference can be challenging. I, like others am always more comfortable with those like myself. Then when I look back my greatest achievements in life they have come when I led teams of difference or worked with those very different to me.

But why would a leader go out of their way to look for very different skills, skills they do not have or understand themselves? Having the hassle of welcoming someone into the team who will not fit easily and may jar with colleagues and the organisation/team culture? That is madness isn’t it? You want people who complement each other and create team harmony for a great team, surely? People who share the same values and ideas as you. People who will work with you easily. You want people like you surely; no you do not.

The evidence is mounting that loving difference is what you need to do if you want your business to rise above the mediocre and win over its competitors. It is also definitely what you need to do to engage the discretionary effort and maximise the morale of your workforce.

This thinking of mine is not new, in fact Stephen Covey said “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” It’s been around awhile but I think it is still not taken seriously enough. Many Boards are still not making it core. Businesses and leaders are falling behind because they are ignoring it or worse deliberately avoiding difference in their teams or belittling its importance.

But, meanwhile a minority of businesses are seeing the benefits. They will overtake you if you do not get DIFFERENCE into the core of what you do and how you do business. And that’s exactly what Mckinsey in their recent research found. More diverse boards do equal more profit and have a more successful impact in their market segment. Mckinsey do not say categorically why that is but they suggest some reasons.

I agree with Mckinsey that the CEOs and chairs they found who are open to, value and seek out difference in people around them and in the strategies pursued are then leading more successful companies. Mckinsey go as far as to say they are putting diversity as a core business goal and there is best practise here to watch. These are boards it seems where gender, race, sexuality, varied social backgrounds, belief, age and disability are seen as valuable assets not barriers to success. You can read the full summary here:


And of course you want to lead the most successful team in your field don’t you? You do not put in the hours and heavy lifting to come home and say I was average today or my team was mediocre do you? If you want to be the most successful business in your field then you need the best team. Many CEOs and Chairs spend a great deal of time with coaches and recruitment agencies considering how to achieve this. But what if they are looking in the wrong places and working with coaches and recruiters too like them? It seems you only get real success by seeking out difference, not the same. Maybe the first thing you could do is fire your recruitment agency or your coach and find a DIFFERENT one!

Patrick Lencioni in his New York Bestseller “The five dysfunctions of a team – a leadership fable” starts by stating:

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

Patrick writes convincingly and with much real expertise from coaching executives and teams. But his 5 dysfunctions needs the addition of a 6th dysfunction avoiding difference. Yes we do need to build trust, engage in conflict, build commitment and accountability and focus on the results. BUT we must also seek the different, the divergence, the new, the unusual the downright weird. As in this place is the breakthrough you need in your business and to avoid it you are likely to be a breeding ground for the horrors of Group Think. Group Think is not another new concept either. In fact it was first coined by psychologists in the 1970s. In my work with organisations and leaders I still find it far too prevalent four decades on. Irving Janis in his work at Yale described Group Think and its real dangers as:

“The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink.”

So the crazy idea I suggest is you need to build a team that will make life more difficult, more different to you, less harmonious and more conflicted at times. Through this difference you and your business will become more successful in your field.

Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book “David and Goliath” sums up how assumptions and current paths to the top table do not get us diversity in thinking, approach or strategy and he says:

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the way that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which these kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

We know leaders and business are less trusted now than ever before and we know when we look up at the top table they don’t look much like the rest of us. So, advantages as we measure them, the right school, college internship and CV aren’t advantages. They potentially stop you connecting with your organisation and your customers. You need difference in your team to see different and be different to the rest of the field.

And teams need this difference as teams that are full of people who are too alike often are not harmonious. They can breed constant internal tension and focus turns to individual status, ego and MY results instead of the whole organisational success. Difference stops the internal competition and comparison that is always so tempting to fall into in top teams. In teams where difference prevails the focus shifts to competing together against the world and to grow and succeed together. A good analogy would be to fix a door you need wood, hammer and nails, three of one won’t do it.

We need to go a bit further than just recruiting difference in our teams and organisations we also need to bedifferent ourselves. I recently interviewed a CEO of a very large public sector organisation. He had taken on an organisations that was in a mess and one that has had high profile interest for its many problems from government and regulators in the UK. He was past his retirement age and shared with me how he was leading the organisation back onto its feet and to be a leader in its field. His background was not traditional CEO as he had spent a number of years in research, strategy and policy development. He did not fit the bill for the shortlist. He wasn’t a current deputy CEO, chief operating officer or finance director. He said to me in describing the rationale for his approach which was different to his peers:

I am not like my CEO peers in other organisations. I have not come through that route and I don’t have status and belonging to that group to hold me back. I’m going to turn this organisation around the way it needs to. It will not be comfortable for me or the Board. But I’m past retirement age so what is the worst that can happen to me? They might fire me. Then I will say thanks for giving me a try and I will go home to the cottage by the sea and put my feet up!”

He is an outsider with the passion, vision and energy to make the change. He is not reckless and he is building a very clear strategy to develop his organisation. Because he is not part of the pack he can challenge and change things without fear of what he will lose. He does not need the approval of peers and he is not looking for it either.

Malcolm Gladwell sums this quality up as being disagreeable, and my CEO friend, lets call him Ted is clearly disagreeable in his approach:

“Crucially innovators need to be disagreeable. By disagreeable I don’t mean obnoxious or unpleasant. ……They are people willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.”

So how do you develop a team that is difference or disagreeable? and how do you work on your own difference? There are a few thing you could try and they build on my Curiosity and Gratitude blogs. If you are serious about being different and loving difference get a coach and a team facilitator if you don’t have one already. Get a coach who isn’t like you but someone who is different to you and your team. Here are some thoughts on what you could do and you will need your notebook again:

  • Go out and about and notice people in your organisation “the ones who are most unlike you”. Take time to talk to them about the business and get their feedback.
  • Who comes to mind as trouble when you implement a new plan at Board? The one who won’t like it or complains about it. Go see Joe, Fred or Betty ask them to explain what’s wrong with your plan, say thanks and just write it down.
  • Who is the quiet one in your team? Take them out to coffee and ask them to tell you what they think about how the business is doing and what could we improve.
  • Look at your top team psychometrics again or get them done. And see what skills and preferences you have lots of and what is missing in team.
  • Go visit a successful business in a completely different field and reflect on what they seem to be getting right.
  • Find out all you can about the main competitors in your field and ask where they are different to you in team and approach.
  • Ask yourself and your team if we made diversity core to our business what would we do differently?
  • Ask yourself if I could recruit any business innovators past and present and from any field to my team who would I pick and why?
  • Reflect on when you last had someone very different in your team, how did you feel or how did you react to them? What have you learnt from this experience.
  • Find out from your team: what is the worst job they ever did? And what was a big event in their childhood? Tell them yours also.
  • Now take some time out to reflect on what’s in your notes and what it is saying to you? Reflect on what surprises you.
  • Set up a top team day and tell your team what you are hearing from outside, ask them to share what their reflections are on this feedback.
  • Start to devise your refreshed business strategy with your team based on what you have learnt
  • Ask your top team one by one and privately to buy in to the new refreshed strategy and direction. Offer them an opportunity to step aside if they don’t want to do the tough work in a DIFFERENT team.

This will not be easy, it will be harder work but you WILL get better results.

So, in summary difference is what you need in your team and your organisation and different is what you need to be also. Maybe you are more different than you let on and maybe on your journey to the top you have hidden your unique attributes and difference? Don’t hide yourself anymore, be authentic and it will make you a better leader if you share your difference.

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
Nelson Mandela

Do contact me for executive coaching, mentoring and leadership speaking. I can travel to you or I offer high quality Skype coaching. I might be some of the difference you need and I would love to work with you on your leadership journey.