Coaching Article – The Key Differentiator in 21st Century Leadership

By Lee Ellis

Have you ever thought why did it take so long to put wheels on luggage? (Perhaps if you are under 30 you assumed luggage had always had wheels.) In my and Hugh Massie’s recent book, Leadership behavior DNA: Discovering Natural Talents and Managing Differences, the Preface describes how there are often more efficient and effective processes all around us, but we never connect the dots to make it happen.  

Take the example of carry-on luggage—something completely accepted today as a normal part of our travel in the 21st century. Yet until around 1990, there was no such thing. Even though wheels had been used to haul cargo and possessions for thousands of years, no one had put wheels on luggage.

In 1987 Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines captain, who tinkered in his garage, put wheels and a handle on a piece of luggage and changed the world of flight crews and then passengers. By 1992, his Travelpro brand of Rollaboard® was changing the industry. Other brands quickly followed suit and brought out their own version of roller board luggage. They were so popular that the airlines re-structured their overhead interior space to accommodate this new revelation in luggage. What’s the message?

“Often there are yet-to-be discovered new tools and principles in plain sight, yet we miss a key application that could revolutionize our lives as leaders.” [Tweet This]

The Natural Behavior Discovery

Coincidentally in 1990, I began my research into human behavior, working with a PhD department head in IO Psychology and one of her graduate students to develop a talent assessment for career development. We took the concept that we all know—people are unique and different—and collected data and used statistical applications to scientifically clarify those differences.

The discovery and outcome were that we could very accurately identify a person’s unique talents or bent and graphically show how people are different. What we learned with that tool has been the focus of my work ever since.

Defining DNA Behavior Today

We now call those unique (different) talents DNA Behavior. From our research and experience over many years, we have also learned that unique talents have both strengths and struggles. (You will see some of those in the example below.)

“Understanding behavioral differences in yourself and others has a profound impact on career trajectory as well as all relationships at work and home.” [Tweet This]

Yes, we all know we’re different; our differences create trouble every day – just read the headlines or remember the last spat at home. However, to understand and accept those differences is a lifelong growth process. Applying this knowledge of differences to get our luggage rolling (i.e. relationships running smoothly) isn’t easy for anyone to do. The good thing is that when you have a logical, scientific way of graphically and numerically showing those differences, the light comes on.

The Devil is in the Behavioral Details

To apply DNA Behavior in day-to-day work, managing differences must be a major focal point for leadership and team development. To get better results, be more persuasive, or quickly adapt interactions with another individual, you must accurately and logically understand differences. Let’s go deeper and understand these details and what they can do for you.

When individual talents/traits scores for a Factor of behavior are plotted on a normal distribution curve like the one above, we can visually see how we’re different.

Here 50 is the mean and median and ten points is one standard deviation. Thus, someone who scores 35 is three standard deviations different on this Factor from someone who scores 65. There is no good or bad, but these talents/traits are completely opposite (think Outgoing vs Reserved, or Patient vs Fast-Paced/Impatient).

Also, looking at this graphic it’s easy to see that 1/3 of the world has the left Trait and 1/3 the opposite/right Trait and 1/3 is in the mid-range with mild behaviors of both left and right Traits. There are three logical conclusions that are crucial for leadership and teamwork success –

  1. Our natural talents/strengths (DNA Behaviors) can be completely opposite from others.
  2. Our behavioral opposites typically have natural talents/strengths that complement our missing talents.
  3. Since natural talents/strengths are accompanied by related struggles, our opposites have the potential to irritate us, and too often we focus on their struggles first rather than their strengths. Not good.

These insights help leaders to logically understand and accept differences in others and begin to learn  how to manage different talents (people) differently. Examples occur at every turn, and here’s a typical one.

Jen at 61 (Outgoing) is managing Tom at 34 (Reserved). The very exposure to Jen’s struggles (talkative, emotionally expressive, disorganized, unfocused) is going to stress him—he just wants to escape to his office and shut the door. So, if Jen wants to effectively manage Tom, she must adapt her behaviors to what he prefers: give him facts, minimize emotions, and allow him time to process his response; avoid overly animated explanations, and respect his privacy. [i]

We call this adaptation by a leader the Platinum Rule—do unto others the way they like to be done unto—or sometimes we just say, “give it to them the way they like it.” This adaptation is not easy, but a small change in behavior will have great leverage in making a relationship more effective.

In this month’s 4-minute coaching clip, I share an experience in which the entire leadership team had to learn to adapt after an HR complaint was filed about a hostile work environment. Watch and see how it was resolved –

Differentiating Yourself as a Leader

You can see the power of this way of managing differences, but you can also see that a leader must have others-awareness and be intentional about adapting—it will take energy and practice to apply this “Platinum Rule”, but the payoff is huge.

So, the challenge for each of us is to understand others and adapt our behaviors so they will be most effective with our teammates.  I’m coaching myself every day to apply this; what about you?

LE [Tweet This Article]

Created in partnership with DNA Behavior International® our experience is anchored in more than 25 years of research and working with Ph.D.’s to develop world-class behavioral assessments that measure the natural talents that are unique to each person.


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[i] This graphic shows only the first two Factors of the Leadership Behavior DNA assessment. There are six more Factors of behavior, giving 16 Traits. You can see an example of all eight Factors and their Traits at

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