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Leadership is about leading through everyday ups and downs. It is about responding to situations and circumstances in our ever-changing world. Oh, sure, it’s helpful to possess insight, vision, clarity, etc. But great leadership comes down to what you do day-to-day.

We hear so much about leadership TRAITS. There is a pervasive leadership myth that you will see in a lot of literature and on a few thousand websites. Gurus will try to teach you tips and tricks on influencing others by portraying key leadership traits. Some will even tout that you can’t be an effective leader if you don’t possess these core traits.

Sure, these traits are important. It’s nice to know that our leaders can lead in a style that we like, and traits can help us determine if that is true for us.

Examples of leadership traits are things like ambition and motivation, self-confidence, courage, authenticity, charisma, creativity, and vision. Others will tell you that you need acumen and competency, reliability, discipline, organization, and structure. Still, others will advise you to have humility, trustworthiness, good judgment, strong analytical skills, and emotional maturity. The list can go on and on and on.

So, can leaders lead without these traits?

Of course. I believe that states are much more vital to your day-to-day leadership than your traits.

Traits: characteristic behaviors that are consistent and long-lasting

States: temporary behaviors that depend on a person’s situation & motives at a particular time.

The difference between traits and states is analogous to the difference between climate and weather. For example, my hometown of Sugar Land (Houston), TX, has a warm climate, but on some days, it may have cool weather or even snow and freeze. In the same way, a person who has the trait of steadiness may experience a state of anxiety on a day when they face a difficult challenge.

While it is important for your reputation to develop leadership traits, it’s your ability to master your mental states that determine your day-to-day leadership success. It is the development and growth of your mental states that will produce your leadership traits.

Why is this important?

One reason is whenever you make a general statement about another person or about yourself, you are probably misinterpreting the facts and communicating misinformation as fact.

This is because most generalizations fail to distinguish between states and traits. So as mentioned above, someone who is usually calm and composed can, under certain circumstances, act agitated and angry because of a temporary mental state that is uncharacteristic of his or her regular trait.

This mistake is so common it is called the fundamental attribution error—meaning that people inaccurately attribute people’s behavior to some internal motivation (trait) rather than external circumstances (state).

Statements like “You are selfish,” “You are fantastic,” “You are foolish,” or “You are bright” are all vague abstractions. Indeed, “You are foolish” implies that the person almost always makes poor choices and decisions. In other words, the person’s character trait is foolishness. But an occasional act of foolishness does not make someone foolish. Even a very intelligent and bright person can occasionally be in a state where they are not thinking or acting their best.

States are generally more intense than traits. So, overgeneralizations such as these tend to be made after specific events. When this fundamental attribution error occurs, you may be labeled with a trait – even though it was a temporary state.

Deliberate Practice

As a leader, you must understand your mental states. You must put yourself in a position to practice staying in the mental states even as the circumstances shift and change.

“Ultimately, the quality of your life will not be determined by how well you lead others. But rather, how well you lead yourself.”

It is through deliberate practice that you will transform your states into traits… that you will transform your values into your virtues.

  • What are you doing to improve your ability to think better (control your mental states)?
  • How often do you intentionally and deliberately put yourself into new situations and circumstances to learn more about your mental states?
  • What kind of reputation do you want as a leader?
  • What will be possible when you develop those traits by deliberately practicing your mental states?

[Stay tuned to learn more leadership myths and how to overcome them.]