Lessons from Unlikely Leaders
Lessons from Unlikely Leaders

A while back, a client told me about a training program she had attended about “executive presence” and how its tone-deaf message badly missed the mark.

The narrow-minded, toxic key message centred on the idea that there is a specific and correct way to be an executive or leader, and no room for alternative styles or approaches.

My client was understandably disappointed by this message, as she recognized that there are so many other examples out there.  If you’re interested at all in leadership development, it doesn’t take much to recognize that not all leaders are the same or have to be the same.

One would think that the facilitators of this training program would have at least a little curiosity, and look beyond the perception that there is one narrow ideal version of leadership.

Leadership Skills

sometimes unlikely leaders are youngIf you do a quick Google search on “good leadership” you’ll find all kinds of different lists: 15 Traits of Effective Leadership; Five Qualities All Successful Leaders Have in Common, What Makes a Good Leader: 18 Leadership Qualities Explained.

Lists of the qualities and characteristics of a good leader include the predictable: Decisiveness, Communication Skills, Confidence, Having a Vision, Integrity and Motivation to name a few. Similarly, there are various styles of leadership, such as Authoritarian, Participative, Transactional, Transformational, and Servant-Leader.

Traditional, stereotypical notions of what leadership looks like are also agentic in nature. Agentic qualities are culturally stereotypical masculine qualities, such as being competitive, aggressive, and dominant.

So then let’s look at a couple of notable, alternatives:  Angela Merkel and Jacinda Arden, both incredibly successful and yet somewhat unlikely leaders.

Alternative Leadership: Angela Merkel

unlikely leaders - Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel at the European Union leaders summit at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium on Jun. 22, 2017

Germany’s first female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, retired from politics in 2021 at the height of her popularity. After serving 16 years and four terms, the former scientist retired on her own terms with historic high approval ratings at home, and as one of the world’s most respected leaders.

Yet Angela Merkel can also come off as quiet, dry and even bland; an almost unlikely leader. Ms. Merkel lacks the typical charisma one would expect of political leaders in the modern media age. Yet it is precisely this authentic seriousness and lack of fanfare, backed by integrity and a no-frills approach to politics that appeals to people in an age of boisterous, larger-than-life, attention-seeking politicians.

“It’s absolutely not her style to lead,” says Maclean’s political correspondent Miriam Lau. “She negotiates and calms other people’s temper tantrums. That she can do. But she doesn’t like to lead, and she doesn’t pontificate. She doesn’t verbalize leadership. She doesn’t like all these things. And still, she has to do it. There’s no one else.”

What has really defined Merkel’s tenure is how she led during key moments of crisis. Whether it was the financial crisis when the world was hit by recessions and stimulus packages, engaging with Putin, or dealing with the European refugee crisis, she has been referred to as the ”de facto leader of Europe” due to her influence and accomplishments.

Compassionate Leadership: Jacinda Arden

Photo Credit: Simon Schluter / Fairfax / Headpress / Redux (The Atlantic, APRIL 19, 2020)

Likewise, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been commended for her compassionate, empathetic yet decisive leadership style. According to leadership professor Claire Collins, Jacidna Arden “embraces leadership differently from most of her national and international counterparts. She uses “we” much more often than she uses “I.”  She talks about the people that she is lucky to work with and those she serves, thus embodying a more servant-leadership style, rather than the usual individualistic authoritarian leader.”

Since becoming Prime Minister in 2017, Arden has shown that she is someone who means what she says, and does what she says she’s going to do. Her authenticity, says Collins, is further shown by taking “a thoroughly modern approach to leadership in a world where her peers still tout… old habits including showing strength, never admitting mistakes, and, if backed into a corner, distracting the press with another story.”

Leading Through Crisis

Merkel and Arden are just two of many leaders who embrace the kind of leadership traits that go against the cultural norm of what the typical leader should look like. They lead in a courageous way that’s authentic and genuine, under intense scrutiny on the national and international stage, in a male-dominated arena. What they’ve also shown is that during times of crisis, especially during the pandemic when many leaders faltered, female leaders have stepped up to take decisive and effective action in a way that their male counterparts haven’t matched.

sometimes unlikely leaders are Black womenThe message of my client’s executive presence course was that leadership requires a strong hand and a heavily masculine mindset; if that is the case, how would the course facilitators explain the success of these two unlikely leaders? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what makes a good leader.


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