Strategy & Leadership

Leadership: learn to know your own style

February 16, 2016

The born leader, the leader as a guardian of identity, the servant-leader or just simply the old-fashioned boss: during the course of history countless leadership theories have dominated. It is striking how often such a theory can be encapsulated in 10 characteristics, 7 habits, 8 steps or 5 laws, or in all sorts of suspiciously symmetrical diagrams. And managers can learn to know and practice all those steps, styles, laws, characteristics and diagrams through training.

There they learn to variegate task versus relationship, to behave as a radar or a motor, to tell inspiring stories or, contrariwise, to simply be silent as a coach. I know managers who have 'development of leadership' in their Personal Development Plan and who follow countless other such training programs, in a kind of sled run of different theories, styles, approaches and philosophies. More suffering than leading, because it leads to little.

Blind spot

Although it can be useful (and also amusing) to immerse yourself in all sorts of different leadership styles and behavior, you will - if it comes to it - still slip back into your own natural style. So it is best to get to know that better rather than practice endlessly with styles with which you feel uncomfortable.

Learning to know your own style of leadership is not so easy. That is because your natural style is an intuitive, unconscious style: you behave as you do, and you don't really pay it any conscious attention. You do what you do, because that is simply normal. In other words: someone's natural style is in their blind spot. Everyone needs someone else to help them discover their natural behavior.

Feedback on behavior

You will discover that in the course of your life. Sometimes by way of unexpected feedback, sometimes because you have always heard the same from your youth (you were fidgety or perhaps patient; the ringleader or predominantly behind the scenes).

Learning to know your own style and behavior can be accelerated with the aid of someone who provides professional feedback. For instance, a boss who is good at it, a professional coach or an intimate colleague. Very often perfect, though not always welcome, feedback comes from the own partner or children.

Fantasies

A second source for learning to know your own natural style is your fantasy. For instance, a fantasy about what it would be like to be the world's greatest leader, or the boss of the company in which you are now just one of the small cogs, or about a television interview you are giving after attaining an enormous achievement.

We often contain ourselves with such fantasies, so as not to appear irrational or to avoid disappointments. But those fantasies often evoke images about leadership that we originally held. In your fantasy, you may sometimes see a leader with a drawn sword standing on a hill at the head of his troops, or a shepherd leading his flocks to the fold, or a quiet listener behind a desk. Or maybe a wizard in a large forest.

Assumptions about leadership

These are childish images, but they certainly give an indication of deeply rooted assumptions about what it is to be a "leader". And why not: you might never become a king, but you can certainly provide generous leadership. You might never become a prophet, but you are able to provide inspiration. That sword is in your fantasy, but a group of followers can certainly take courage and proceed in a given direction thanks to your willpower and pugnacity.

Sometimes the feedback or fantasy is unwelcome. You would prefer to be seen as a strong leader, but in practice people come to you to have a good cry. You want to be sharp, but people feel especially relaxed in your presence. Maybe you want to provide leadership to lots of people, but you don't seem to be a good manager, and are primarily deployed as an advisor.

Develop your natural talents

Just one piece of advice: don't start a course in order to become strong, sharp or bossy. And certainly do go on a course to develop that which you apparently naturally possess: empathy, wisdom, advisory skills. These are all good talents.

The whole idea that you should master a particular style in order to be successful in different situations, amongst group followers, in the culture of the surroundings, and so on, is a misapprehension. There are simply more variables in the equation than can be calculated.

One of the greatest proponents of the contingency theories, Fred Fiedler, discovered - depending on a leader's style (task-focused versus process-focused for instance) - that this leader was more effective in some situations than in others. But you cannot simply turn it around, as if the leader is able to adjust his style to the situation. As Johnson and Johnson wrote in their book about group dynamics (2009), Friedler could not find a correlation between the effectiveness of a group and the behavior of the leader!

Each style of leadership suits

However, there is the so-called "equifinality" phenomenon: there are countless different ways of leading/managing a group from one situation to another. Depending on the circumstances, one person will do it more quickly or more effectively than the other, but each style of leadership will suit. Yours too. So concentrate on that rather than on styles which don't suit you anyway.

An important pillar of leadership is: make the most of the tools that you have. Don't point at others, don't think in problems and don't blame a failure on factors like circumstances, money or other people. A leader doesn't blame his tools, but makes the most of them. 

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