DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO TALK ABOUT “LEADERSHIP STYLES”?

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.

2 thoughts on “DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO TALK ABOUT “LEADERSHIP STYLES”?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that those I personally believe to be the best leaders are, as you suggest, engaged in “a continual course adjustment… a continual dance in the face of changing circumstances.”

    Similarly, I have always applied the metaphor of surfing to good leadership: A surfer must, even before entering the water, observe and tune in to the ebb and flow of the day’s waves; carefully choose which wave to catch; then continually adjust to the direction, power and unpredictability of the wave to which the ride has been committed.

    I am not, however, in agreement with your conclusion that, “The moment we try to talk about leadership styles, we are missing the essence of what leadership is all about.”

    The ability for a leader to dance or surf – call it what you will — even the awareness that this dynamic behavior is a conscious choice — is, in and of itself, a leadership style, which not all leaders, or even all arguably effective leaders, share.

    We have, in recent years, seen a presidential leader choose a mission and cling to it, disregarding changing events, shifting alliances or even conflicting public sentiment. And this “stick-to-the-plan-come-hell-or-high-water” leadership style was greatly admired by many who believe it connoted a man of conviction, standing on moral high ground. In contrast, our current leader was welcomed on his platform of “Change,” promising not only to bring it about, but to do so through a more flexible and responsive leadership style.

    I recently listened to a portion of a debate between the California gubernatorial candidates… Jerry Brown described his approach to developing a new budget, saying that he would begin early to talk with state legislators, regional government leaders and various interest groups around the state — listen to what the people want — build a budget plan around those priorities — then “take it on the road” and test its relevance with constituents — adjust it — and build as much consensus for it before it comes to a vote as possible, in order to avoid the long deadlocks Sacramento has seen in recent years when it comes to signing off on a budget. His leadership “style,” I would argue, can be characterized as “consensus building” or “bottom up.” In contrast, Meg Whitman argues that what the state needs are new ideas, delivered by a strong leader, as a pre-defined plan. She will come to office, if elected, with such a plan in hand, and she feels that she can induce the legislature to accept it. Her leadership “style,” I would argue, might be characterized as “authoritarian” or “top down.”

    Some leaders hold their own counsel, making unilateral decisions that affect the group. Some leaders surround themselves with advisors, considering various points of view before taking decisions. Some leaders bring issues to the group at large and merely facilitate the process of communal decision-making. I believe that these are all components of different — and viable — leadership styles. Once a decision has been made, one leader may lead by example; another may delegate; a third might dictate. All three may still be “surfers,” as described above, but their leadership “delivery,” and therefore their leadership styles, may vary.

    So, contrary to your premise, I would argue that leadership is all about style: the style by which a leader makes decisions and the style by which a leader implements decisions are what, in fact, characterize the leader.

    You also bring up the notion that unlike a personal or management style, leadership cannot be characterized by style because it relies on an ecosystem to have an effect. Without followers, there is certainly no leadership. But that does not mean that the would-be leader does not have a leadership style. Effective leadership, for better or worse, does go beyond style, requiring something more to catalyze it. I suggest that “something more” is not necessarily passion, as you posit, but power – which might be the result of one or more factors including but not limited to charisma, manipulation or simply circumstance. It might be passionate (emotional) or dispassionate (rational), but whatever the “something more” is, it elicits trust and induces the group to bend to the will of the individual.

    Perhaps there are a couple of equations, which might clarify my train of thought:

    Management style (decision making process) + Personal style (delivery and implementation) = Leadership style

    Leadership style + Power + Circumstance = Leadership

  2. Indeed very interesting….

    I believe we are making “observations” about leadership once it is in action. The puzzle is understanding the factors that create a leader.

    My current belief is that few are born with an outstanding innate ability to lead, lucky circumstances (nurture) provide the necessary training, and finally an opportunity gives rise to him/her. Malcolm Gladwell examines an aspect of this phenomenon in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success.” On the other hand, some are not born with exceptional leadership ability but have the potential and can learn to become proficient. Leadership analysis and training are targeted at the second category.

    It is a great puzzle to think about.

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