There are a myriad of leadership styles upon which a potential leader could model him or herself. They lie upon a spectrum with quite opposite positions at each end. Wise leaders know how to find the right balance along the spectrum.
In a past column about mindful leadership I shared my growing appreciation of yoga as a practice that can lead to a more mindful and focused state. The challenge of achieving some of the more difficult poses is also a draw for those who enjoy yoga. Balance poses are among the harder ones, especially for an older student who is naturally less inclined to be well balanced. Things get even more difficult when it feels like the upper body and lower body are trying to balance in two different ways. While the lower body may be using just one foot, the upper body might be twisted in a completely different and unnatural state. Achieving it could be said to be the mastery of opposites. That might also describe the type of balanced approach that enables great leadership.
Depends on the situation
Many readers are no doubt familiar with the principles of situational leadership. Leaders need to adopt different styles depending on particular situations. Some call for a more democratic style in which staff members are empowered to take responsibility for decision making. Others require a more autocratic style in which the leader makes the tough call. This school of thought on leadership is more formally known as the Vroom–Yetton contingency model. It suggests a spectrum on which one end is a completely autocratic style and on the other end a totally consultative style. Depending on how much information a leader needs to share with or acquire from subordinates, the decision process ends up somewhere along the spectrum. It suggests that leaders can choose wisely from a menu of options for matching their style to the demands of the situation. It may be that our leadership style is influenced by the times, and there’s no question that the prevailing message to leaders is that command-and-control style leadership is being replaced by a more collaborative, participative style. What does it say about our times when one of the most admired business leaders is Steve Jobs, whose legacy as a leader is clearly a cautionary tale about the power and problems of the autocratic style?
It worked for him
In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, there is an active conversation about his particular leadership style, and whether it’s one that aspiring and sitting leaders should learn to adopt. Jobs’ was no situational leader. He practiced one style: my way or the highway. He was completely unbalanced. It’s doubtful he ever read leadership books that spoke to the values of building trust, servant leadership, or other styles predicated on genuine respect for workers. Perhaps the best piece on what to make of Jobs as a leader posed the question “Do you really want to be like Steve Jobs?” It describes two camps of leaders when it comes to emulating Jobs. The acolytes believe he knew how to get things done, and they may even enjoy the thrill of dictatorship. In the other camp are the rejectors, those who make it a point to repudiate Jobs’ style. They reject his awful treatment of employees, and his lack of work-family balance. Given his preference for the autocratic style, we might ask why any sensible leader would model him or herself after Jobs. Perhaps the most salient point is the response Jobs gave to his biographer Walther Isaccson when asked if he regretted his harsh, intimidating style. Jobs answered, “Look at the results,” which I interpret as the means justifies the end. As one leader interviewed for this article states, “An atomic bomb gets results too, but look what it does to everything around it.”
Achieving more balance
Given his mythical status, using Jobs as inspiration for a leadership style is a strategy perhaps best accompanied with a warning label that reads “try this at risk of complete and utter failure.” His high-risk approach is exactly what neither you nor I should aim for, according to two researchers who did extensive research on leadership styles. According to Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser, few leaders can pull off a Jobsian style. They found that great leadership is a balance between interpersonal skills on one end of the spectrum and strategic organizational execution on the other. It’s the “how” (people) versus the “what” (strategy). In their analysis of hundreds of leaders, virtually none who were effective became so without good people skills—of which Jobs had little. Unlike Jobs, whose style represented primarily the “what,” the majority of leaders who do get results are “masters of opposites” in that they can work both ends of the spectrum equally well.
Actor or skilled strategist
How can a leader achieve a state of authenticity when he or she is playing the role of chameleon, simply adopting a particular style to meet a situation? If a leader practices true authenticity, then he or she should be themselves no matter what the situation demands. That might work in a perfect world, but reality throws us so many curves that it requires us to occasionally escape our own skin and adopt other personas. When I was a graduate student of higher education, I recall that George Keller told me the story of a college president whose academic roots were in the field of psychology. As a president he needed to play a variety of roles, and that was critical to his success as a leader. He admitted to having little passion for athletics, but as a college president he needed to cheer on the teams across all the sports. Acting as a sports enthusiast was hardly authentic, but it was good for the school and its students. As a psychologist, he believed that some psychological manipulation was acceptable if it meant putting the health of the institution above all else.
In the end, being a great leader may be less about how you adapt to a particularly situation, and more about how well you are able to balance the “how” skills of a people leader who inspires others to do great work and the “what” skills of an innovative, strategic leader who knows how to execute regardless of the situation. Great leaders need to do what is best for the good of their organization, and those who depend on it, in all situations. That is why it is so essential for leaders to learn and understand how adopting certain styles or mastering two rather opposite skill sets could support successful achievements. As with many things in life, it is all about balance.