Leadership training that won't annoy people, part three: Don't use leadership styles
What is your leadership style?
Are you a challenger? Or are you maybe a bit of a lone wolf? Maybe you're always on, or maybe you are a connector. For your sake, I hope you would identify as a "connector," given Gartner's recent finding that "connector" leaders are, always and forever, objectively the best. You might be authoritative, you might be command and control, you might be a servant leader.
Perhaps you have attended a workshop at your company, led by a highly-paid consultant, who hands you a twenty-item questionnaire and in return reduces the complexities of your work into a single, snappy categorization. An aggregation of the breadth of my own participation in these workshops would suggest that I'm some combination of a type 3-red-challenger-servant leader-ENFJ-collaborator-facilitator. You know, the most common leadership style.
But here's the problem. Whatever leadership style you think you identify with is likely not the leadership style that others would use to define you.
Our leadership styles, which is to say, the way we engage others in the collective pursuit of a shared goal, is highly situational.
Many working parents would attest that the way they engage their kids to get them to bed on time is considerably different from the way they manage their direct reports at the office. The way that I coach my high school football players to be better defensive linemen is vastly different from how I coach my co-workers to be better managers. The way a senior executive directs their team through an intense budget negotiation would look much different from how that same leader would mentor a group of aspiring future executives.
Marcus Buckingham, in his recent bestseller "Nine Lies About Work," concludes that leadership styles are among the most pervasive myths of the workplace. Buckingham writes:
"The only thing that the best leaders share is followers. The best leaders are able to give their people the confidence to follow them into the uncertainty of the future. They all have that in common. But the way in which they instill this confidence varies, leader by leader. Which means that “leadership” isn’t something we can define in isolation of the leader doing it."
-Marcus Buckingham, 9 Lies About Work
The data increasingly suggests that something as complex and context-dependent as leadership cannot be reduced to a set of traits akin to a personality style.
So, if we bring leadership styles into our leadership development efforts, we're wasting time and resources. We're also patronizing our learners by ignoring the nuances of their skillset.
But if we were to cut leadership styles from our leadership development programs, what would we put in its place?
The answer to that question is found in the reason why leadership styles are problematic. Leadership styles don't add value to our work because our work as leaders oscillates wildly from one setting to another. So instead of understanding leadership styles, we need to understand the setting in which our leadership takes place.
True leadership development is less about aligning one's habits to the best of a personality style, and more about attuning one's attention to the particulars of your environment. In other words, true leadership development is a process of thoughtful reflection about an organization's culture, or the processes by which an organization constructs meaning.
To develop leaders, we don't need to categorize individual styles and teach what it means to lead within those styles. We need to help leaders think about the organizational culture in which they operate, and the leadership skills they need to thrive within that environment.
How does our organizational culture inform the interpretation of data? How does our organizational culture facilitate collaboration? What challenges does our culture present to effective communication, clear goal setting, and nimble execution? These are just some of the questions that leaders should be asking when they get together for leadership development. Because when our leaders increase their awareness of their culture, they can identify the skills they need to thrive.
At that point, leadership development ceases to annoy people. At that point, leadership development becomes a joy.