Leaders in the tundra and Sahara: differing characteristics of snowflakes and cacti

How do the leadership qualities of snowflakes and cacti differ?
How do the leadership qualities of snowflakes and cacti differ?

Cacti and Snowflakes alike abound in the leadership arena. No credible data suggests either is inherently a more successful leader. Everyone has their own peculiar propensities.

Leadership characteristics


  • Cerebral: lead from the head
  • Analytical, logical
  • Direct
  • Separate emotions from consequences
  • Can reprimand without emotions
  • Seek and provide facts
  • Consider principles in decision-making
  • May hurt feelings without realising
  • Drawn to rational choices


  • Sensitive: lead from the heart
  • Involved, empathetic
  • Diplomatic
  • Identify with others’ emotional states
  • Struggle with giving negative feedback
  • Seek and provide appreciation
  • Consider perceptions in decision-making
  • May over-personalise events
  • Drawn to inclusive choices

Did you find your spot among the array of leadership characteristics? Kudos! You’re an exemplary, self-aware leader.

You don’t get the rest of the day off. Quite the contrary. Now you get to be on high alert for the subtle clues of employees, supervisors, teammates, and clients regarding how they engage in the world. Let’s get busy!

Being adaptive is a particularly attractive quality to be able to draw on for those in leadership positions. There’s a high likelihood you’ve got a haphazard arrangement of prickly spikes and crystallised snow among your team. If you are a Cactus amid a crew of Snowflakes, learning to speak their language will take you far. Reverse that for Snowflake leaders.

You’ll also be seeking different motivators for each. What resonates and motivates Snowflakes? Recognition, benevolence, and encouragement. What do they respond to? Positive reinforcement. What resonates and motivates cacti? Fairness, justice, and intelligence. What do they respond to? Reason and data.

You may discover a member (or two) of your team has the exact opposite composition as you. That’s wonderful news. This person can be a tremendous asset. For example, if you’re a Snowflake, after staff meetings you can confer with your Cactus ally for analytical insights you may have missed. A Cactus can check in with a Snowflake collaborator regarding the state of participants’ underlying emotions.

Praise galore

Snowflakes are all about positive reinforcement. It flows forth naturally. Makes sense, as they themselves are highly motivated by praise. Yet, sadly, this can backfire. Free-flowing compliments have a diminishing collective impact. Cacti roll their eyes, thinking: ‘Sure, that’s Devora; she gushes over everyone’. (You have no reason to deduce I’m referring to myself. A serendipitous namesake.)

Even worse, people with cerebral natures may find it impossible that such abundant praise could be sincere. That’s right: now you’re under suspicion of being a phoney. A devastating label to bestow on an earnest Snowflake.

Meanwhile, think back to a time when you were the rare recipient of positive feedback from a formidable Cactus. Even a perfunctory comment may stick in your mind indefinitely when it is offered up like a rare gem.

The upshot is that curmudgeonly Cacti get more bang for their buck due to product scarcity (the product being the praise). Meanwhile, the Snowflake’s accolades get brushed aside, while the softy Snowflake is called into question for continual compliments. Cruel fate!

Know yourself

When people radiate positive reinforcement, this nearly always correlates with craving it themselves. But an insatiable appetite for glowing feedback is likely to be unrealistic. If you have a ‘never enough’ appetite for accolades, consider techniques to internally generate positive reinforcement. Heightening your level of self-acceptance also helps.

Feel good, do good

While there are endless methods to motivate others, the feel-good, do-good model is one of my favourites—and staunchly reflective of Snowflake and Cactus partialities. The feel-good camp, led by the pom-pom adorned Snowflakes, focuses on how people feel. The do-good faction, led by Cacti carrying clipboards, focuses on results.

As a Snowflake, you’ll gravitate towards encouragement; as a Cactus, you’ll gravitate towards systems. Integrating components of each methodology can generate particularly strong, motivated teams. It works. I’ve seen feel-good leaders push their teams beyond original expectations. I’ve also observed do-good leaders cheering on their team for smashing beyond goals. There is cross-pollination. Each style can be infused with and enriched by best practices from the other camp.

A startling surfeit of ‘how to boom your business’ advisories profess you must assume a plethora of mysterious leadership traits to succeed. This fuels a misperception that we must shelve our true natures to be five-star leaders. This is foolhardy and inevitably flops. The reverse is true. Let’s be trailblazers, bringing ourselves to the table. No need to deny your temperament, ever. The path to success – however you define it – is blending authenticity with receptivity.

This is an edited excerpt from The Cactus and Snowflake at Work: How the Logical and Sensitive Can Thrive Side by Side by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler, 2021).

Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, providing leadership and team programmes. She holds an MBA from the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University.

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