When it comes to what we’re looking for in a leader, we’ve seen a major swing over the last three decades. At first we wanted confident and authoritative leaders, but now we are repulsed by narcissistic, bottom-line mentality leadership.
Hence the rise of the humble leader - someone who doesn’t pretend that they know everything and signals the importance of learning from others.
The problem, however, is that egregious displays of humility can backfire. Although employees want leaders that admit when they don’t know something, they also want leaders who know what they are doing.
Humility is good, but exhibiting an extreme amount of humility to come across as more “likable” is unnecessary. Employees want advice and direction just as much as they want open-mindedness.
Of all the leadership concepts floating around the infosphere, there’s only one that fits the bill as a universal, leadership ideal.
It’s not transformational leadership, servant leadership, level-5 leadership, or any other leadership “style.” A specific approach to leadership that works in one context won’t always work in another.
Along those lines, the ideal approach to leadership is what’s called situational leadership. Situational leadership recognizes that there are three moving parts to any decision regarding how to lead others.
First is the leader themselves. What are the individual characteristics of the leader? What are their tendencies, values, strengths, weaknesses, etc. The goal is to act from a place of authenticity, but also get outside of our comfort zone when necessary and within reason.
The second is the followers. What are the characteristics of the individual or team that is being led? How are they motivated? What are their goals? What are their individual characteristics? Everyone is unique; therefore, it is important to flex the influence approaches that align with those individualized needs.
The third is the context. What are the contextual conditions surrounding the leader-follower dyadic interaction? Is this interaction during a time of quiet or chaos? Is this interaction taking place within a bureaucratic (e.g., the Federal government) or decentralized (e.g., a startup venture) organization.
It is helpful to understand all the different styles of leadership. But it’s arguably more helpful to think through whether and how those styles will be successful given who you are as a leader, who you are leading, and the context surrounding your leadership influence.
Last year I was half-way through proctoring a final exam when a student - disheveled, sweating, and breathing heavy - came bursting into the classroom. He was 40 minutes late for an 80-minute final exam.
“Are you okay?” I asked. He briefly explained a part-tragic, part-crazy experience that had kept him up all night at the hospital with his roommate. I gave him the option to make up his exam at a later date. His response, “If Elon Musk can do it, so can I.”
He went on to explain that Elon Musk can deliver under pressure and doesn’t need to sleep. Somehow this student was so enamored with the extreme behavior and success of Elon Musk that he was willing to flunk his final, and the class, because he, like Elon Musk, thrives under pressure.
It’s time to retire the idea of “heroic leadership.” As a society, we are obsessed with the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Tony Hsieh, may the latter two rest in peace. Uber-successful and relatively eccentric entrepreneur-CEOs.
Yes, the world needs people who are willing to push the envelope. But for every Elon Musk, there are millions of fantastic leaders who don’t exhibit extreme behavior.
It’s time to start championing the boring leader - the conscientious, roll-up-their-sleeves type. Although they’re not as interesting to read about, they are more realistic role models.
The advice, “be authentic,” is widespread. In particular, there is a wide body of research illustrating the benefits of authentic leadership.
Many, however, have dismissed the idea of authenticity, saying that it’s unrealistic. One argument is that it’s unwise to only be what you want to be. It might not align with what your superiors or customers expect.
Another argument is that it’s unwise to speak your mind at all times. You’d get the unfortunate reputation of being antagonistic.
These critiques are missing the point. Being authentic doesn’t mean you have a license to skip being empathetic and do as you please. It’s a mindset that guides how you influence others.
Authenticity means first being in tune with who you are and what you believe (self-awareness). Then, you are forthcoming about your beliefs and why you believe them (relational transparency). The key is open-mindedness, ensuring that the other party knows that you are genuinely interested in learning more and exploring alternative rationales (balanced processing).
Authenticity shouldn’t lead to people being selfish. It should lead to people having transparent conversations where everyone respects each other’s perspectives.
"Can You Take The Lead On This?”
If you are my boss and you ask respectfully, then yes, I’m happy to do the work that you are assigning me.
But if you are my peer, this question is problematic.
What this typically means is “I don’t want to do the work on this, so it’d be awesome If you’d do the work instead.”
A better framing would be to ask, “what part of this project would you like to lead?”
The assumption that one of you will lead and the other will follow is also flawed. That’s not how teams succeed.
The best teams are those that repeatedly grant and claim team leadership roles as the situation dictates.
I know that sometimes it might feel “leader-like” to ask someone to take the lead on something. It’s not. That’s something a manager says.
When it comes to leadership, we are inundated with contradicting suggestions on "what" to do.
We should have executive presence, but we should also be a humble leader. We should be proactive, but we should also have a clear goal in mind before taking action.
So which is it?
The more accurate (and more helpful) answer is that it depends on the situation. This is the "when."
Don't oversimplify. Add context. Challenge yourself to think through the when, not just the what.
We know a great deal about leadership, the process of leading others towards collective goals.
Comparatively speaking, we know relatively little about self-leadership, the process of leading ourselves towards self-set goals.
Self-leadership is about increasing our self-awareness, which in turn, leads to self-regulation (see Bryant & Kazan, 2012). It’s in these moments of self-regulation where we get closer to being our ideal self.
Self-leadership is complex. It has to be specific to the individual because each of us has unique characteristics, goals, and circumstances.
Self-leadership is also challenging. It’s about what goes on inside our heads. This means that sometimes our assumptions and biases can get in the way.
That’s why I’ve started this blog called The Self-Leadership Experiment.
The goal is to create a community where participants can self-reflect, contextualize, and debate the merits of different strategies.
This approach recognizes that leadership is not a person, it’s a process. It takes ongoing experimentation—trial and error—to reach our goals. There are no quick fixes—it takes honest, intelligent effort over a sustained period of time.
My hope is that these posts spark ongoing conversations so that we can learn from one another. Through this dialogue, we can start to contextualize our ideas and challenge our assumptions, and in turn, make real progress on becoming a better leader.
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