As we progress through our careers, many of us develop our leadership style as we go. In fact, this approach is so widely used that it is sometimes a common assumption that we only need a single way of leading based on our personal preference. Research indicates strongly that this is not the case and that leaders who can intentionally adapt their style to encompass more unconventional leadership characteristics hold many advantages.

We don’t always get to choose the situations we lead through. The turbulence of the pandemic response in 2020 and 2021 has led to conditions where many of us have unexpectedly either been forced (or had the opportunity) to dramatically shift either the organisational systems we are part of or how we interact with them. In these kinds of circumstances, creativity, flexibility, and a degree of unconventionality can be major strengths. But what does it mean to be an unconventional leader, and how do you need to adapt your style to introduce more of this into the way you lead?

Why is Unconventional Leadership rare?

To be unconventional means that, in some way, you are pushing against the established order. Most larger or more established organisations can tend towards conformity and conventional thinking – this can be seen everywhere, from established ways of working, to culture, to risk appetite and decision making. These can create fixed points in the conversation an organisation is capable of having with itself and, through that, impede innovation and change. 

Where this has set in, organisations tend to hire for culture fit, conventionality and political correctness. The Perceived Weirdness (yes, that’s a thing) of those making decisions and joining the organisation is lower and so realising the competitive advantage that comes with a diversity of thought and input is harder. Groupthink becomes common, competitiveness drops.

These results come about because when we’re under pressure or feeling uncertain, a set of behavioural traits come to the fore in many of us that support a defensive and fixed way of leading:

  • Fear-based decision making
  • Slopey shoulders and reduced levels of individual or team accountability
  • Narcissistic defence – an exaggerated sense of self-importance or self-worth
  • Lack of awareness of our impact on others, providing our own needs get met

If you take five minutes to look through these and reflect honestly on how often you have observed them around you or displayed them yourself in the last 12 months, you’ll begin to see what I mean. Pushing against all of this takes some strength and can be a struggle.

Unconventional Leadership characteristics

Unconventional leaders are rarer because they actively step into these struggles. The ability of any individual to do this is then based on certain character traits and characteristics:

  • Courage – able to take an unpopular but right stand
  • Integrity – honesty and authenticity
  • Stewardship – awareness of responsibility to others
  • Humility – humility linked to self, fiercely ambitious for their organisations
  • Care for Others – creating the conditions for people to flourish

Character matters

In many leadership development programmes and courses, we are asked to reflect on leaders that we have personal experience of and their impact upon us. Think back over your career and identify those who stand out for you – how many of the traits of unconventional leadership did they exhibit?

Our character and the way we lead matters in a day to day, functional way. It also matters because most of our interactions with others are unconscious – they come from who we are. It is from ourselves that we influence others, and the more power or influence we have, the greater the impact of ourselves on those around us.

Developing in yourself the unconventional leadership characteristics above is likely to increase your ability to lead flexible, adapting teams and organisations. Have a think about this, and if something I’ve said here sparks some though – get in touch, and we can talk.

If you liked this you may also enjoy this previous post.


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