Creative vs Reactive Leaders

Updated on December 30, 2016

Are you getting a multiple on your strengths or canceling them out?

By Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

Our 360 assessment asks raters to provide written comments on the leader’s strengths and liabilities.  We recently analyzed the comments that senior leaders write to each other to get a street view on leadership.  What we learned astonished us.

Most leadership strengths fall into three main categories: heart/people strengths, mind/intellectual strengths, and willpower/results strengths.  Our research on written comments strongly suggests that when these leadership strengths are run reactively, they are canceled out by associated liabilities. People strengths that are run reactively become Complying, mental strengths become Protecting, and will/result strengths become Controlling.

Controlling leaders, from an early age, develop the strengths that use power to get results such as passion, drive, results-focus, decisiveness, etc.  When these strengths are used reactively, Controlling leadership results.  These strengths are often experienced by others as over-drive, perfectionism, workaholism, excessive ambition, dictatorialness, ineffective interaction style, poor listening, micromanaging, over-demanding, etc.

The Protecting leader has developed strengths of intellectual brilliance and critical, and analytical capability.  Run reactively, others experience this leader’s strengths as superiority, arrogance, distance, aloofness, disconnectedness, ineffective interpersonal style, overly-critical, etc.

The Complying leader has strengths of forming relationships with people, supporting and developing others, approachability, listening, and connecting.  When these skills are running reactively, they are experienced as conventionality, cautiousness, submissiveness, self-centric, not holding the team accountable, being too focused on pleasing others, indecisiveness, failing to achieve results, etc.

Thus, when we run our strength on a Reactive structure of mind, we take the strength off the table and we literally cancel ourselves out.  We have a neither/nor relationship with our core strength.  How and why does this happen?

We become identified with our strength. We come to believe that our strength defines who we are.  We have to be seen as nice, likable, agreeable, supportive; or as smart, wise, brilliant, analytical; or as the ones who drives results and gets things done. Over and over, leaders tell us, “This is what makes me me. Not to be this is not to be me.”  When we define ourselves this way, we can easily slip into a compulsive relationship with our own strength: we must be this way, or else.  Consequently, we overuse that strength; and yet, when our strength is overextended, it becomes a liability. We may continue to overplay it and not even notice it. We then play ourselves right into the canceling effect—our strengths are offset by the associated liabilities. 

What got us into using 360 profiles was watching passionate, visionary, and creative leaders cancel out their change efforts. When we try to lead change from a Reactive mindset, we return to normal. We cancel ourselves out with competing liabilities in ways we don’t even see—and at executive levels, nobody will tell us.

Reactive tendencies develop in our formative years and serve us well up to the point where we hit a wall—we realize that we are outmatched by what is now required of us to lead effectively amid ever-accelerating complexity.  When we start to experience the shift between Reactive and Creative leadership, we start to get a multiple on our strengths, and we leverage complementary competencies. Now our leadership is not neither/nor, it’s both/and.

In the Creative stage of leadership, strong people skills and drive/passion don’t complete—they complement. For example, the two Creative leadership competencies on our 360 assessment that correlate most highly with leadership effectiveness are Purposeful Vision and Teamwork—they can complement each other.  You can be both technically brilliant and personable. You get your strength in multiples along with the associated complementary competencies.

Mastery is the fluid movement between strengths.  Mastering leadership brings the right strength to the situation—even to complex, highly charged situations.  We are not stuck in running our leadership through a Reactive default setting. We can transcend neither/nor into both/and. We can have better relationships and get better results. Creative leadership multiplies strength.

Creative leadership is about creating a team and organization that we believe in, creating outcomes that matter most, and enhancing our capacity to create a desired future.  It is designed for change—to bring into being what is envisioned. Creative leadership starts with purpose and vision.  The driving focus is on creating a vision that is worthy of our deepest commitment—a vision that generates energy, passion, purpose, action, love, and faith that is bigger than fear. Creative leadership yields a pattern of high performance over time. As we get clear about our purpose and translate that into a clear picture of the future we want, passion naturally grows along with the action necessary to create our desired future. 

Bob Anderson is Chairman and Chief Development Officer and Bill Adams is CEO of Full Circle Group. They are coauthors of Mastering Leadership (Wiley). Visit for more information.

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