Leadership styles, part 2: Have you flipped your iceberg lately?


pegacorn_stickerHappy Monday, everyone. Due to requests, here is some new NWB merchandise based on the mythical creatures leadership styles I wrote about. Now you can proudly proclaim that you are a Dragon, Phoenix, Pegacorn, or Griffin. I changed unicorn to Pegacorn to distinguish from the general nonprofit unicorn, and Lion-Turtle to Griffin because I didn’t want Nickelodeon to sue me. Thanks to the ever-brilliant Stacy, who designs this website, for creating these mugs and t-shirts.

Just to recap, Dragons are decisive and action-oriented and would rather run into traffic than talk about their feelings. Phoenixes have lots of energy and vision and are great communicators, but they’re easily distracted. Pegacorns bring harmony and consensus and are great listeners but are often indecisive. And Griffins ground everyone in processes and data and are great analyzers but can be too perfectionistic and slow to action.

Since my organization is focused on developing leaders, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership, and will be reflecting on various leadership concepts from time to time on this blog. One of the most useful concepts I learned from my last executive coach is called “Flipping the Iceberg.” Basically, all of us are like icebergs resting in the ocean. People see what’s above the surface, but the majority of the iceberg is below the water. Each of us has all of the leadership styles within us, but usually there is a dominant one that rises to the surface when we are in our natural state. For me, for example, my natural state is Pegacorn, which means that I like harmony and consensus and need to check in with everyone before making a decision.

But when situations call for it, our iceberg rotates so we can access other leadership styles. dragon_stickerDuring budget times, for example, my iceberg flips to Griffin mode, which is very analytical and process-oriented. On stage delivering a speech, my iceberg flips to Phoenix, a style marked by high energy, humor, and PowerPoint slides with pictures of baby animals. And under stress, my iceberg rotates into Dragon mode, and I am decisive, action-oriented, sometimes pushy.

“The more often we rotate our iceberg,” said my coach, “the more fluid we become at it, which allows us to quickly adapt to any situation. The most effective leaders are the ones who can quickly identify every situation they are in and the type of people they are interacting with and smoothly adapt to access the style, or combination of styles, that would work best.”

That philosophy has been extremely helpful, especially when I find myself in situations that are not my natural elements, such as mingling in a room of people I don’t know, or flossing.

Griffin_stickerWe do have the standard advice of “stepping outside our comfort zone.” But that is too simplistic. To be effective at our work, we must do more than just be uncomfortable once a while. We need to identify our strengths, find the things we suck at, and actively and intentionally seek out opportunities to practice them. Or at least not avoid them when they are presented. Doing this work, I meet a lot of people who say things like, “I’m not comfortable with public speaking. Don’t make me do it!” Or “I hate sharing my feelings!” Or “I’m not good at finances, never was, never will be.” Or “Vu, this is slightly difficult to say, but maybe you should dress more professionally…” 

In the short term, if we only do stuff we like, we may be happy, because it takes a lot of energy to flip our iceberg, and it doesn’t always work. But in the long run, we are missing out on opportunities to develop effective leadership skills. 90% of leadership is about doing crap we hate (Or   maybe that’s just on Mondays and around gala time).

So, this week, try to be aware of situations that require you to flip the iceberg. For examples:

  • Communicating with someone whom you’d rather just smack with a sock full of tuna.
  • Delivering a speech at a gala in front of hundreds of well-dressed people who are irritated that their food is late
  • Facilitating a group discussion on intersectional dynamics and systemic oppression
  • Requesting a major gift from a potential donor whose outfit may be worth more than your car.
  • Writing a budget using last year’s actuals and projecting three years into the future.
  • Supervising someone who would rather smack you with a sock full of tuna and you have no idea why.
  • Washing your dishes in the office sink instead of leaving them to get all crusty and gross and incurring the hatred of your coworkers
  • Eating a single raw cauliflower floret from a veggie platter at a community event
  • Getting out of bed and going to the office

Once you are mindful of these situations, it gets easier to recognize them as the kick-ass phoneix_stickerleadership-development opportunities they are. You can say, “I am now going to consciously flip my iceberg.” Then, you go get ‘em, Tiger, or whatever cliché inspires you. Here’s some general advice, based on your dominant mythical creature style. Keep in mind, though, that I am not an expert on leadership styles. These are just my observations:

In general, rotating to the style that is completely the opposite of your natural at-rest state—flipping the iceberg all the way, so to speak—will take the most energy. That means Phoenixes, it’s hardest for you to become a Griffin; and Dragons, it’s hardest for you to go into Pegacorn mode; and vice-versa.

Dragons: You like actions and to-do lists and you have little patience for people and their “feelings.” Look for situations to practice being able to slow down and get to know people and build consensus. Sometimes, being fast at making decisions and taking actions means you leave people behind. A good leader must understand when to be decisive, and also when to ensure there is consensus and ownership. Learn how to motivate people to action without being pushy and confrontational. And it won’t kill you to participate in an ice-breaker without rolling your eyes once in a while!

Pegacorns: You are the harmony-builders, the peace keepers. Others know they can turn to you when they need someone to vent to. Figure out when that’s helpful to creating a stronger team, and when that just enables people to avoid problems and stymies actions from happening. You don’t need consensus for everything. You are great at mediating conflicts between others while avoiding conflicts involving you. As a sponge of other people’s emotions, you tend to bottle up your own emotions. But sometimes conflicts are necessary, so stop avoiding them. It’s OK that some people may not like you.

Phoenixes: You have great energy and bring fun and joy and humor and vision to every project. But you lose interest and drop the ball, like, a lot. You agree to everything that sounds exciting, and then you get distracted and forget what you agreed to do. Learn to flip your iceberg to become more deliberate and methodical and focused. You have very creative ideas, but they would be more convincing if you had data and rationale behind them. Learn to identify when you can go wild with energy, and when you should just stay quiet so other people can be in the spotlight. Maybe try not to drink so much.

Griffins: You are deliberate and methodical, taking your time to make the decisions that would have the best results. Unfortunately, that means sometimes you overthink and overanalyze everything and occasionally miss out on opportunities. And because you tend to be perfectionist, you often suck at taking feedback, becoming very defensive at the slightest criticism. Flip your iceberg to be more spontaneous. Understand that data can only move people so far; they need you to paint a vision of what’s possible. Learn to be less defensive when others give you feedback. And go out to happy hour with your coworkers sometimes, sheesh!  

Of course, this is all greatly simplified. Human beings are way more complex than what’s presented here or in any other personality or leadership surveys. The point I’m making, even if you don’t believe in any of this stuff, is that an effective leader needs to be able to access all leadership styles and can quickly switch from one to another when the situation calls. In Nickelodeon’s animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I would rank up there among Game of Thrones and Golden Girls in terms of brilliance), there is a leader called the Avatar, who is reincarnated through the ages to bring peace and harmony. He/she is the only one who can master and control all four elements and bring balance to the world.

That’s what our world needs, for all of us to master all the leadership skills within ourselves, including intentionally doing the stuff we are not good at or that we hate, so that we can help bring balance to our community.

So, if anyone wants me, I’m going to be at Ross, Dress for Less, buying some button-down shirts and maybe a new belt. 

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

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  • Wow, I am sooooo a Phoenix! 🙂

  • Rocky Parsons

    You had me at “sock full of tuna”.

    • Rhiannon Orizaga

      yes, this was definitely hilarious imagery. I’m also thinking how excited my cat would be, as she loves both socks and tuna.

  • Je’Nai Talley

    Wow, you really get me! #teampegacorn

  • Barb Welch

    I’m not sure I’m with you on this one, Vu. It seems to me we spend too much time trying to learn how to do the things we’ll always be bad at. It’s worthwhile to figure out what you’re good at, and then surround yourself with people who can fill the gaps. If you’re a phoenix ED, then someone else has to be in charge of the details. If the organization doesn’t have the resources to have that someone, then you may be in the wrong job.

    • Epsilonicus


  • Ginger Grimes Savage

    Okay what are you if you are all of them?

  • Karen

    Vu, thank you for reinventing unicorns as pegacorns so I can celebrate the more universal nonprofit unicorn without possibly appearing to selfishly promote my own type (which you can tell is my type because of my caring about what everyone thinks about how I celebrate them)!

  • drfinlay

    He/she may be a terrific executive coach, but his/her knowledge of icebergs is limited.

  • Scott Dixon

    I like this article because it’s in line with what we practice at our non-profit, understanding people’s strengths through Gallup’s Strengthfinders. Basically its a practice that helps an individual and an organization identify what behaviors and strategies we gravitate to when confronting challenges. The strengths are all ranked for an individual and your “Top 5” are considered to be what you generally lead with, especially in a crisis. However, we also are reminded that while our Top 5 are our go-to strengths, we actually can activate any strength to deal with a particular situation – it’s just that the lower ranked ones require more conscious effort. For example, one of my Top 5 strengths is Input – when faced with a problem, one of my first instincts is to gather as much information about the situation as possible. However, one of my low strengths is Strategic – which means I often need to consciously activate that skill-set to apply all of that input toward identifying the path forward. Otherwise, I might get stuck in an endless loop of constantly gathering info and advice and never actually doing anything.