Dispelling the myth of the unicorn leader
by Gregg M. Schoppman
January 3, 2019

Unicorns are perfect, magical creatures, and, as myths go, they aren’t real. In the construction world, a similarly defined individual is being hunted: the “unicorn” leader. This elusive type develops great businesses in a single, entrepreneurial spark and marvelously crafts the foundation of a great enterprise.

Real leaders, who embody every trait of this unicorn leader, may not be as rare as the horned creature itself, but they certainly are uncommon. Many of today’s leaders study the personality traits of the great business minds that came before him/her, hoping to reach the same level of success.

Vision-focused, goal-oriented and strategy-forward traits define the makeup of these great minds. And as aspiring leaders continue to seek perfection, many of them find there is no promise that it can be found.

Growth by Leadership

The central personality traits possessed by great leaders often become the governor for a company’s vision. What prevents smaller businesses from achieving sustainable growth? Why do large businesses fail to capitalize on their size? An interesting phenomenon occurs when a leader says, “I want the business to grow.” What follows is an attempt to garner more volume.

However, businesses can grow, altering their form for the betterment of the institution, without gaining in size. As humans, we grow older, but we do not continue growing taller. Our growth is measured differently. Similarly, business growth is not measured by size alone. It is in search of this measurement that a business should assess the personalities of its leaders and determine whether they are granular or stratospheric leaders.

The Granular Leader

Often, the old adage, “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying,” becomes the barometer against which a firm measures its strategic vision. However, growth without discipline or a clear understanding of the ramifications of growth can be dangerous. The granular leader focuses on the “what” of any given business scenario—those tiny details that seem important to success.

But if a leader’s personality requires a high level of control, out of desire to be involved in every detail, will growth be possible? Is there enough time in the day to address every single issue affecting a growing business on a granular level?

Most experts would argue that delegation is essential for growth. Spreading the visionary thin by having him/her involved in every tiny detail of the business can greatly lessen his/her efficacy, even though he/she imagines it will do just the opposite. For such leaders, there is often a frustrating and exhausting learning process that precedes an understanding of this dynamic.

The Stratospheric Leader

In contrast, stratospheric leaders seem as if they have this balancing act mastered. However, organizations with a stratospheric leader may grow the enterprise, but that doesn’t always keep a business staying true to its values. The stratospheric leader focuses on the “how” of things.

For instance, while the enterprise is growing volumetrically, who is managing the day-to-day tasks? If the granular leader(s) is focused elsewhere, managers and superintendents will often seek operational guidance, support and accountability. This is where the stratospheric leader steps in to help.

Personality Ramifications

This is not to say that a granular leader does not also have subordinates. However, if the leader desires to be part of every meeting, sign every check, conduct every performance evaluation, etc., the matter of capacity will come into question. Something has to give. Granular leaders must either accept their place in a small, yet successful, business, or make the choice to move away from micromanaging employees and tasks.

Stratospheric leaders view the details as kryptonite—an unexciting part of their jobs—and frankly, they generally aren’t detail-oriented. Subordinating management is common, but it still requires the leader to be seen and participative. For instance, his/her role as cheerleader is leveraged to demonstrate support for what is happening day to day.

Asking the appropriate questions to mangers, as well as vocalizing support for internal initiatives and projects, validates what is happening inside the four walls of the business. Look to Figure 1 for more detail on granular and stratospheric leadership strategies.

Great, Not Perfect

While you may not be able to find your perfect “unicorn,” the odds are that you will be able to find a truly great leader. Great leaders create opportunities for growth and know how to see it through.

They lead teams that are capable of providing alternative views, as well as supplemental strengths the leader may lack. And both granular and stratospheric leaders possess one necessary attribute of a great leader: the ability to hire the right team to make it all possible.