Last week saw the launch of our MBA programme with some 300 classmates representing over 50 countries, 1,500 years of combined work experience, and a colourful range of professional and personal backgrounds. We have entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, doctors, consultants, financiers, journalists, artists, and even an Olympic medallist. Every single one of my classmates has an amazing story and it’s truly an honour to be among such a group.
With that being said, we now also find ourselves in a rather strange bubble. Strange because everyone in the class is so different yet so alike; strange because what got us here won’t necessarily get us elsewhere; and strange because we find ourselves at an elite institution, and yet I’ve never experienced a place more inclusive. These juxtaposed ideas – as well as many others I encountered during Launch Week – reminded me of a leadership lesson our first lecturer, Jon Cowell, shared. And that is that high-achieving individuals and organisations always have a “distinctive flavour”.
Where does this flavour come from? Part of it comes from what I alluded to earlier: the unexpected but harmonious juxtaposition found at great institutions as well as in great individuals. Peter Thiel writes about a similar observation in Zero to One when discussing great leaders. They are a strange and effective bunch because they often hold extreme but opposing traits. Steve Jobs, for example, was highly disagreeable yet persuasively charismatic. He could be cold (he’d often fire teams on a whim) and sensitive (he’d sob openly when things didn’t go his way.) Jobs was also both an insider and outsider in the corporate world: a business insider because he was gifted at sales and marketing (unlike his technical co-founder Steve Wozniak) and an outsider because he was an artist at heart (unlike other corporate moguls).
You, too, may find that you have a number of personal qualities that seem contradictory. For instance, you might be an introvert in some situations and an extrovert in others. You might be a poet on some days and a quant on others. You could even be an optimist and pessimist both, depending on what time of the day you’re asked (or whether or not you’ve had your morning coffee). And that’s fine. Don’t try to choose between your quirks. Instead, own them. Coupled with your unique background, these are the very same qualities that can give you a strong and distinctive leadership style.
In my own life I’ve come to appreciate contrasting qualities as strengths rather than weaknesses. For example I was born in Uganda but grew up in England. This makes it easier for me to connect with multiple cultures and to have a more global outlook. I also enjoy working hard but have a tendency to procrastinate. This means I get things done but occasionally spend time on disparate activities that can spark ideas for creative pursuits. Indeed, embracing seemingly contradictory but harmonious qualities in your personality are what will make you stand out as a distinctive leader. So celebrate your diversity and don’t be afraid to lead through and in spite of contradictory qualities.
Ps. Much thanks to Sagar and Diana Garibaldi who read an early draft of this post.
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