Leadership. It can mean different things to different people and vary widely between companies. Leadership is more than just a job title. You won’t wake up one day and magically be imbued with all you need to do a good job at leading. If we don’t have a shared understanding of what a Good Leader looks like, how can we work on ourselves towards becoming one? How do you know if you even could be a leader? Can you be a leader without the title?
What even is it?
I got very frustrated way back in my days as a senior developer when I was given “advice” about my leadership style; at the time I didn’t have the words to describe the styles and ways in which I was leading to be able to push back. I heard these phrases a lot:
- you need to step up
- you need to take charge
- you need to grab the bull by its horns
- you need to have thicker skin
- you need to just be more confident in your leading
- you need to just make it happen
I appreciate some people’s intent was to help me, but honestly it did my head in. WAT?! What did any of this even mean. How exactly do you “step up” and how are you evaluating what step I’m on? I am confident, what does being even more confident help achieve with leading? Does that not lead you down the path of becoming an arrogant door knob? >___<
While there is no One True Way to Lead, there is an overwhelming pattern of people in positions of leadership within tech industry being held by men. It felt a lot like what people were fundamentally telling me to do was to be more like an extroverted man. I was being asked to demonstrate more masculine associated qualities (#notallmen). I’ll leave the gendered nature of leadership qualities as an exercise in googling for the reader.
I’ve never had a good manager and at the time had no one else to ask for help, so I turned to my trusted best friends. Books.
I <3 books
I refused to buy into that style of leadership as being the only accepted way to be. There had to be room for different kinds of people to be leaders and have different leadership styles.
There are three books that changed me forever in how I approach and think about leadership.
- Primal leadership, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee
- Quiet, by Susan Cain
- Daring Greatly - How the Courage to be Vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and Lead, by Brené Brown
I recommend you read them. Ignore the slightly cheesy titles and trust me, just read them.
Primal leadership helped to give me the vocabulary and understanding I needed about the different styles of leadership there are, how and when to apply them.
Quiet really helped me realise how much I was being undervalued and misunderstood in an extroverted world. If I’d had managers or support from someone who valued introverts’ strengths, things would’ve been very different. I would’ve had someone telling others to step down and shut up for a change rather than pushing on me to step up and talk louder over everyone else. It’s OK to be different and needing different things like time to recharge or time to think before speaking. It also improved my ability to work alongside my more extroverted colleagues by giving me an understanding of their world so I could communicate my needs in a language they would get.
Brené Brown’s book I am forever in debt to. Her work gave me the courage to stand up and be my own kind of leader. Even when no-one around me looked or sounded like me, I found my own voice.
It takes great courage to be vulnerable and open about what you can and can’t do. Open about your mistakes. Vocalise what you don’t know and asking for help. In some lights, these are seen as weaknesses and many have tried to use them against me, to pull me down and exclude me for talking about them. Dear reader, it did not work, they failed. The truth is, they are my greatest strengths. The privileges I have, I use for good as best and often as I can.
Just like gender, leadership is not binary
If you google for what a leader is, you’ll get many different answers. I personally think Brené’s version is the best as it is one that can apply to a wider range of people, irrespective of job title or function.
I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.Brené Brown
Being a leader isn’t about being the loudest in a room, having veto power, talking over people or ignoring everyone else’s ideas. It’s not about “telling people what to do”. It’s not about an elevated status that you’re better than others. Nor is it about creating a hand wavey far away vision and forgetting to help support people in how to get there.
Being a Good Leader is about having a toolbox of leadership styles and skills to choose from depending on the situation. Knowing how and when to apply them is part of the challenge and difficulty in becoming good at it. It is something you will have to continuously work on, forever. There is no Done.
Leaders are Made, they are not Born.
Be flexible in your leadership style
Typically, the best, most effective leaders act according to one or more of six distinct approaches to leadership and skillfully switch between the various styles depending on the situation.
From the book, Primal Leadership, it gives a summary of 6 leadership styles which are:
Visionary, moves people toward a shared dream or future. When change requires a new vision or a clear direction is needed, using a visionary style of leadership helps communicate that picture. By learning how to effectively communicate a story you can help people to move in that direction and give them clarity on why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Coaching, is about connecting what a person wants and helping to align that with organisation’s goals. It’s a balance of helping someone improve their performance to fulfil their role and their potential beyond.
Affiliative, creates harmony by connecting people to each other and requires effective communication to aid facilitation of those connections. This style can be very impactful in healing rifts in a team or to help strengthen connections within and across teams. During stressful times having a positive and supportive connection to those around us really helps see us through those times.
Democratic, values people’s input and gets commitment through participation. Taking this approach can help build buy-in or consensus and is a great way to get valuable input from people. The tricky part about this style, I find, is that when I gather and listen to everyone’s input, that doesn’t mean the end result is that I have to please everyone.
The next two, sadly, are the ones wielded far too often and have the greatest negative impact. It’s where the “telling people what to do” comes from. When used sparingly and in the right situations, they can be a force for good. However, they must not be your default style.
Pacesetting, when used well, it is about meeting challenging and exciting goals. When you need to get high-quality results from a motivated and well performing team, this can be great to help achieve real focus and drive. Sadly it is so overused and poorly executed it becomes the “just make it happen” and driver of unrealistic workload which contributes to burnout.
Commanding, when used appropriately soothes fears by giving clear direction in an emergency or crisis. When shit is on fire, you want to know that your leadership ability can help kick-start a turnaround and bring clarity. Then switch to another style. This approach is also required when dealing with problematic employees or unacceptable behaviour.
Commanding style seems to be what a lot of people think being a leader is, taking control and commanding a situation. It should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.
Be responsible for the power you wield
If reading through those you find yourself feeling a bit guilty that maybe you overuse some of the styles, or overwhelmed that you haven’t got all of these down and ready to use in your toolbox…
Take a breath. Take responsibility. Take action.
No one is perfect, and it’s OK. You can start right now working on those. You can have a conversation with your team and try being open about how you’re going to try some different styles. You can be vulnerable and own up to mistakes you might’ve made followed with an apology. You can order those books and read them. Those books will give you more examples on those leadership styles and help you to find your own voice.
The impact you can have on the lives of those around you when you’re a leader, is huge. You can help be that positive impact, help discover and develop potential in someone.
Time spent understanding people is never wasted.Cate Huston.
I believe in you. <3 Mazz.