160 - “Do you think trying to adopt a leadership style that’s not your natural style could backfire?”


leadership and org culture

Last week, I published a piece on managing a transition in your career: role change, job change, or both. The piece made the point that the optimal leadership style is situation-dependent. A go-go-go leader who can see the firm through a turnaround from a sticky place may not be the right fit for sustaining success. Understand the environment in which you’ve to lead. That tells you the need of the hour. Often, this situation won’t come labeled, especially if we’re talking about leadership at a team or business unit level. You’ll be thrown into the situation, left to diagnose the problem(s), and then fix it. When that happens, it is better if you share your diagnosis with your boss and the two of you see eye to eye. If your boss believes a bandaid would do and you’re thinking surgery, or vice versa, it’s a bigger problem than what you waded into.

In response to my piece, a reader, a senior cloud leader, asked me this:

“Do you think trying to adopt a leadership style that’s not your default/natural style could backfire?”

I thought it relevant to bring out a few more nuances, including the one that I think is the least acknowledged of all.

Know your leadership style:

The first step is to know your leadership style. Without self-awareness, there’s a lot of second-guessing. New managers/leaders face this most acutely. They don’t yet know themselves, so they tend to mimic what they see without paying enough attention to what comes most naturally to them. It shows up as internal conflict in decision-making. What happens when they come into awareness?

Self-awareness about your natural leadership style is usually a penny-drop moment. Your challenges come into clear perspective. It becomes easier to make a conscious choice about whether or not to test yourself outside your wheelhouse.

Build a leadership range:

The second step is to build a leadership range. It is hard for you to be a successful leader at scale while having an inflexible leadership style. Think of your leadership range as the give in a piece of metal. Without this give, the piece is more likely to break before it bends.Stress does that to leaders with a rigid way.

Both are fairly obvious steps, though not easy. It is the third step, I believe, that builds you a lasting toolkit.

Ask: What, if at all, is the difference in core values?

Understand that any meaningful difference in leadership styles points to a potential difference in core values. Someone who believes in holding power is fundamentally different from someone who believes in empowering. The same situation when brought to both leaders will yield chalk and cheese responses. It is hard for leaders to simply pick a style for a situation if the style’s not in their repertoire. It will be tantamount to picking a value that is not theirs. If you believe in being cautious and thorough, you cannot all of a sudden set a rollicking pace. If you believe that decision speed is more important than decision accuracy, then you will not slow down to cross all t’s and dot all i’s.

Tobias Lutke of Shopify has a sort of a user manual for himself on the company Wiki about how he operates (hint: he dislikes big meetings and Shopify, the last I heard, has stopped all recurring meetings). Another interesting recent example comes from Intercom. A friend who works in their London office put out this announcement about his firm’s plans.

What is special about these examples? They tell you what matters, and what doesn’t, to the company. They point to you the company’s core beliefs—not the ones printed on the brochure or on the homepage of the company website but the ones in action. At the CEO level, this kind of signaling breaks open so many dilemmas for the workforce. Your managerial span, should you do something like this, may be smaller and so may be the impact. Nonetheless, it is clarifying for those who work with you.

The values you believe in decide the frames with which you see the world. For example, do you see your team or org as a family or as a sports team? Any system of reward and recognition is likely to be a reflection of this value. Do you believe the customer knows best or that it is your job to decide and shape customers’ desires?

Your way of doing things—your leadership style—is like the exteriors of a building. Undergirding what is visible are the foundational elements, your values. These are the parts underground that bear the load of what is seen to the eye. You cannot continue to shift what is above ground without needing to look at what is under it.

If you’ve been airdropped into a new role or hired from another industry or even moved laterally, find out if there’s any difference in values between you and your employer. A conflict of values, unlike facts, cannot be settled in one Monday morning meeting. Value conflicts tend to be stickier. They need more introspection. They lead to discovery.

Understanding your leadership style is an opportunity to understand yourself and what matters to you. Everything flows from that.

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