What Style of Leader Are You and Does it Matter?

By Dr. Francis Eberle

Generalizations about leadership style are easy, but become messy in the reality of people and structures. More than ten years ago Jim Collins received criticism from leaders in the social sector for assuming the leadership style in his book Good to Great was universal. He responded with a monograph, Good to Great for the Social Sectors and described two leadership styles: Legislative and Executive leadership. I never asked him, but it seemed he wanted to distinguish the social sector from private organizational leadership styles. One connotes a decisive and top down style, while the other is a participatory and team style of leadership. It is easy to guess which is which. Which is your style?

I bring this up now, because increasingly there are suggestions for private-sector leaders to exhibit behaviors such as empathy, collaboration, listening and teamwork. Has something changed in ten years? Of course things have changed. Thanks to Jim for making the earlier distinction, but today there are capabilities and behaviors that have changed the game for both sectors. Just the technology in smart phones allows individuals to sign confidential documents, deposit checks, pay bills, watch live video of your child or pet while at work, adjust the temperature or sound system in your home, send cash to individuals, record video, and use social media to start and lead social movements. These phone applications give individuals much more control of their lives. And hence create significant implications for the workplace. We also now know much more about human behavior and how to assess people through new knowledge in psychology. Combining the power of the individual and knowledge about behaviors of individuals gives leaders new challenges and new opportunities for leading. This brings me back to legislative and executive leadership. Legislative leadership is connected to social sector organizations such as churches, non-profits, education, government and healthcare organizations. The thinking is they have more oversight with boards and active constituents. Therefore, they need to be collaborative with their decision-making and include constituents, partners and sometimes funders. While the logic makes sense, do these leaders always make decision by consensus and are they less decisive? The concept of executive leadership presents specific images of a leader who pragmatic, bold and focused on results. Again, the logic makes sense in the abstract, however in reality they ask for input from their teams, customers and boards. The two styles of leadership simplify the reality of leadership. In both realities, leaders have to address the needs of their customers, getting results and governance. Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review states leaders need to be more well-rounded and to address the new challenges. His reasoning includes:

  • Their company may be disrupted, perhaps because of technology
  • Greater numbers of employees, customers and the even the public at large can influence business through social media
  • A volatile political climate here and around the world
  • Struggles with recruiting and managing workers who increasingly prefer more flexibility, self control and companies with a mission beyond maximizing profit

He and others suggest leaders need a new and wider range of skills, and to understand themselves more deeply so they can better adjust and respond to today’s challenges. As executives make decisions, they involve a greater set of inputs (qualitative and quantitative). Social sector executives have similar inputs and hence are more decisive. Leadership today in the social or private sector is not measured by a single metric. To lead in a VUCA world, leaders need a range of skills and characteristics. Bennett and Lemoine in the Harvard Business Review argue that each VUCA challenge requires a particular type of response and skills. Skills such as creativity and experimentation, gathering more information for analysis, and conflict management. These are required by any leadership style. An explanation of these and more can be found in The Complete Leader by Ron Price and Randy Lisk. Whatever your leadership style, these skills can be learned and begin with understanding yourself. Then accessing how your behavior translates into action and the actions of those around you. There are available tools to help leaders assess their behaviors. TTI Success Insights has a range of tools that I use in my work because of their depth and breadth of what is measured and used for executive growth. Jim Collins did say in Good to Great and the Social Sectors that both leadership styles are necessary in both sectors. In many ways these styles have merged as effective leaders use both styles and the distinction is not as relevant today. Has this new style become servant leadership? That answer is for another post. The styles and skills needed today are more situational rather than generally applied to a sector. What are you doing to learn more about yourself and these skills to be ready to address these new challenges?