My conversations with groups of MBA and Engineering students are proving to be a rich source of topics and reflection for me. At a recent meeting with University of California Haas Business School students, I was asked about my leadership style. I was unable to answer. This bothered me, and the more I thought about it the more I felt something was fundamentally wrong with the question itself.
I have reached a tentative conclusion: The moment we try to talk about leadership styles, we are missing the essence of what leadership is all about.
We can talk about personal styles, behavioral traits, or management styles. But when it comes to leadership, because the range of behaviors and actions we need to access and apply at any particular moment is vast, it is unlikely to fit neatly into a simple classification. Which behavior we use is a function of the nature of our team, the nature of the dialogue, and the circumstances we face in each situation.
I actually envision the leadership process as an “energy vector.” The leader injects his or her energy and “purpose” into the vector, stimulates the team to add their own energy, insures that the vector is pointing in the desired direction, and foresees some of the hurdles that the vector needs to overcome to reach its destination. I know this sounds amorphous, but that is what leadership is: a continual course adjustment as we move towards the goal, a continuous dance in the face of changing circumstances. And in the end, it is all about people, which means that the leader needs to be ultra-sensitive to human dynamics, sharply tuned into each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, strains and stresses and, in particular, anything that may be blocking them from doing their best.
It also means that leadership is not just the purview of a select few, born with all the “equipment” to lead. In fact, it is in all of us, if we could only “unbottle it.” Barry Posner and James M. Kouzes say it well in the Preface to their very well known book on leadership The Leadership Challenge (James M. Kouzes, Barry Posner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008, xii): “What we have discovered, and re-discovered, is that leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It is a process ordinary people use when they are bringing forth the best from themselves and others. When the leader in everyone is liberated extraordinary things happen.” This is exactly what I heard recently at a talk given by Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who landed the US Airways plane on the Hudson on January 15, 2009. He defined heroes as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” He certainly displayed leadership in that extraordinary 240 seconds from engine failure to landing.
In his book Build The Bridge As You Walk On It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004,) Bob Quinn of the University of Michigan raises an interesting view of leadership: Quinn considers leadership to be a “state” into which a person enters (or leaves), rather than a predetermined characteristic of an individual. As circumstances demand, the individual may rise to the leadership need, the leadership occasion, tapping into a wide range of personal traits. In the process, the leader is always balancing between contrasting behaviors, his own and that of his team. Too much of the extremes can be detrimental. Thus, someone who is too visionary, without the right balancing influence, can be unquestioning, ungrounded or deluded. Someone who is too practical can be pessimistic, destructive, hopeless. It is the leader’s job to navigate these extremes and to insure all actions harmonize in pursuit of the goal.
Key to all of these views of leadership is that the leader needs to display passion, using the energy that comes with his or her convictions and commitment to sweep others into the “leadership vector.” In doing so, one of the main roles of the leader is to absorb uncertainty, balancing the different risk tolerances of the team members. As the individual with the greatest understanding of the full picture (limited as that picture may be), the leader unburdens team members from worries that will get in their way, permitting them to concentrate on applying their unique skills in the execution of their tasks. Which brings me back to the Sully Sullenberger situation… From his description of that incredible day, his team had total trust in him and he in them. What is startling is that he had met his copilot only a few days before. Granted, his reputation preceded him, yet I find it fascinating that in spite of this prior lack of personal interaction, the two individuals were totally tuned into each other. They were completely vested in the moment; the dramatic circumstance removing any barriers of ego or self-interest, which so often artificially get in the way of what we are capable of accomplishing.