Approaches to Leadership

I recently went to a meetup as part of the Wellington Leadership group on the topic of ‘Learning to Lead’. During this meetup we talked about the following leadership styles, listed in order of effectiveness in bringing about positive change:

  • Visionary
  • Coaching
  • Affiliative
  • Democratic
  • Pace Setter
  • Commander

This got me thinking about leadership styles and how this can sometimes be reflected in where someone is on their own personal journey. This order of effectiveness could also be seen as something of a maturity model for personal growth and leadership. Before I get started into each style, I think it’s important to make clear that each style has attributes and traits that could make it effective in one situation but could equally make it ineffective in a different one. The ability to change the approach to suit the context is also key to this maturity model and that requires an additional understanding of the environment around us.

The Commander

This style of leadership is directive and is very task orientated. You might recognise a commander by their focus on achieving the task or goal at the expense of everything else e.g. people’s feelings, emotions or time. While useful in situations where action and a clear directive is critical to short term success, this approach can also be seen as overbearing and may alienate people due to its absence of empathy.

When people first step into a leadership position, this approach can easily become a default style as it aligns with the cultural norm of what being a manager is, telling people what to do.

As organisations and people mature, we begin to appreciate that there are different ways to get buy in other than having to use the ‘big stick’, authority or title.

The Pace Setter

When someone works hard and produces results, it’s natural for other managers to want to replicate this in other people. One way of doing this is to promote the pace setter so that they can build a team just like them. This style will encourage others to work extra hours, chase aggressive deadlines, work over lunch and commit to overtime. This can be useful when important deadlines have to be reached and momentum needs to be built but can easily lead to burnout and resentment within teams, especially when personal time is expected  to be sacrificed.

The difference between the pace setter and the commander, is that the commander is more likely to tell others what to do whereas the pace setter will lead by example and create an environment where everyone else feels they have to keep up.

Not all roles or responsibilities require this urgency and it often reduces creativity within teams as thinking time is replaced with continuous action.

These two approaches, the commander and the pace setter do come with a word of warning to use with caution. While they can be effective in some situations, they should also be used as more of a seasoning rather than the main course.

The Democratic Leader

This style of leadership is not political as the name may suggest but wants to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. These leaders are usually focused on gaining a consensus and making sure that no one is left out. When situations are tense and communication is key to resolving issues, having a leader who values everyone’s thoughts equally can help to create an environment where everyone feels heard and respected.

Because this style values each person having a fair and equal say, it can also create an environment where there is a lack of action.

This style tends to avoid decision making in isolation or without counsel and as a result of this can slow down the decision making process and create a bottleneck by preventing actions. Having an awareness of the bigger picture and understanding when it is time to ‘think’ and when it is time to ‘do’ can help to keep momentum.

The Affiliative Leader

The affiliative leader likes to build relationships and usually has a wide reaching network. They are usually warm people who have high levels of empathy and are good at resolving conflict between people as they can help to create positive connections. This emphasis on relationship building can also mean that these types of leaders are less likely to address poor performance as they value the relationships highly and may be more cautious about putting that in jeopardy or upsetting someone.

The Democratic Leader and the Affiliative Leader are similar but do have a key difference between their focus. Where the democratic leader focuses on making sure everyone has a voice, the affiliative leader is focused on building the relationships. It is possible to be democratic without being affiliative.

The Coach

One of the two most effective leadership styles, the coach is good at asking questions. By asking questions, the coach allows others to figure things out either on their own or with guidance and creates an environments where mistakes are things to be learnt from.

The coach is also good at looking at an individual as a whole person and is usually more interested in getting to know the person first choosing to see the work/life balance as just ‘life balance’.

Coaching can be difficult to do correctly and requires a healthy amount of empathy, self awareness and a growth mindset. The individual doing the coaching must also be mature in many aspects of their own self. Coaching done wrong can come across as micro managing and people can lose trust and become defensive or cynical.

The Visionary

These are the leaders tha have a vision and know how to share it in a way that encourages others to want to take part. It is considered the most positive of the leadership styles when trying to effect change. Being a visionary requires the skills to see the bigger picture and also communicate how the individual has a vital part to play in achieving the end result. This approach can empower the individual as they can feel a part of something important and also encourages autonomy.

Having a vision is not enough for this leadership style to be effective, there must also be the maturity and ability for that person to be able to hold others accountable in a positive way. To create this, trust and support are key elements for an environment to be created where no-one wants to let another person down.

How can these styles be combined?

One of the scenarios we imagined at this meet up was that of a dysfunctional team. Our facilitator asked how we might approach a team that was experiencing conflict or dysfunction as a leader. The combination we talked through was:

  1. Be Affiliative, build the relationships first, get to know people one on one and listen to what they have to say, hear their perspective
  2. Be Democratic, once you’ve built an affiliation with each team member, create an environment of democracy where everyone’s voice can be heard. It’s important to let everyone get their perspectives on the table without arguing back, contradicting or fighting. The point at this stage is to allow everyone to be heard and feel like they’ve contributed equally.
  3. Be Visionary, now that everyone knows where they currently are, it’s important to create a vision of the future and bring people into the idea of where they could be with some changes. Remember that being visionary also means that you have the ability to hold people accountable for their actions or lack of.
  4. Be a Coach, once the vision has been agreed to and people know where they want to go it’s then time to step back, be a coach, create an environment of experimentation and ask questions so that people feel a sense of control over their direction.

I really enjoyed attending this meet up and it has given me a lot of food for thought into how I can apply different styles at different times as well as being aware of what I’m currently doing and where I have gaps.

Adapting to Change

Working in tech has many challenges, one of those is the rate of change and how we respond and adapt to those changes. New languages and tools are constantly introduced and for some this can be a fearful time. I once heard that we don’t fear change as much as we fear loss and I personally believe that to be true. The phrase ‘people don’t like change’ is a misnomer for me as it doesn’t fit with my view of the world or reflect the progress (rate of change) we’ve seen in the past 150 years. Some change is born out of necessity however some is out of curiosity, frustration, pleasure or by accident.

Lately my world has been a veritable epic centre of change and this has forced me to apply introspection and really think about what is happening both externally and internally. This thinking also follows on from my last post about expectations and how these too can have an impact on how we perceive the world around us.

Compromised Values

We all have a set of internal guides that help us to make decisions and sense of the world. These are often referred to as a values, the emotive elements of life that we place a varying degree of importance on. For example, Integrity is one of my highest rated values whereas safety is something I value much less. This can be seen in my frustration with people I would consider unreliable and my ease at which I can pack up and move to another country without first securing a job. These are some of the things that make me, me. Everyone has their own set of values and their own ranking of these. If I propose the idea of packing up and moving overseas without a job and somewhere to live to someone that does value safety highly, I’m likely to meet quite a lot of resistance to this idea and probably a lot of questions.

When our values feel compromised in any way it’s likely that we will start to feel anxious, uncertain, frustrated and other things that make us feel a little uncomfortable with what’s happening around us. By knowing what our values are and taking the time to identify how something is making us feel, whether our values are being compromised or fulfilled, we can start to understand our own behaviours. This can help us to rationalise change and is a technique I find particularly useful when I feel as though the change is out of my control.

Fear of Loss

Loss can be an incredibly powerful emotion and I know that times in which I’ve been most troubled has been when I’ve lost someone or something that I had a strong connection to. When we’re first confronted with losing something it can be a difficult time. A role change can stir up many varied emotions, such as being excited about new responsibilities or opportunities but it can also be a difficult time as we come to terms with perhaps losing team relationships that we had built up over time. With almost every state transition we take as people we are usually gaining something but in the process, also removing or losing something.

In times of change where a feeling of loss has been involved I have found it helpful to focus on what I have gained. Being able to come to a place of accepting that things won’t be the same as they were can be difficult and it’s important that we are honest about ourselves as been accepting of a loss or not accepting. Some losses can feel bigger than others so I also like to use a scale system to put things in perspective.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of an impact is this loss going to be on my life?
  2. What would be a 10?
  3. What other options do I have still have in my life?
  4. Is it still ‘X’ on the scale?

This exercise helps me to think of events more critically and I usually end up downgrading the impact of the loss by the end of this.

Unmet Expectations

Most of us have an expectation about what is going to happen to us in the next day, the next week or for those of us who really love to think ahead, perhaps longer than that. If we’re the type of person who likes to think about the future and what that might bring given our current set of circumstances, when one of those circumstances change, this can throw things in to disarray. There is thinking that if you change your expectation, you change your perception.  When people don’t met our expectations, even when we haven’t communicated what those expectations are, it’s easy to feel disappointed or frustrated that someone else hasn’t done what you think they should. Talking with people who have leadership positions about people who report to them, one of the common complaints is ‘Why did they / didn’t they do what I thought they would?’

The answer to this question lies in the conversation about what is or isn’t expected, not what you perceive the expectation to be. My perception is that most people want to be kind to other people and want to do well. Once a conversation takes place about what both parties expected, the source of frustration is usually clear. Having a growth mind set also helps with this as it allows us to be more open to other possibilities. This isn’t a case of ‘lowering expectations’ rather than ‘understanding expectations’ so that an outcome which is shared by both parties can be reached. Having the courage to talk about what we expect with others is a skill which I am continuing to place more importance on. It can be a good tool in diffusing a frustrating or difficult situation.

Underlying a lot of this is ‘the unknown’ which, if not understood can sometimes cause paralysis of change. These are some of the types of change I commonly experience and how I try to adapt to the undulation of emotions that come with these events. The more practice I do with these tools, the quicker I am able to get back to a place of comfort where I feel empowered to act.

Are there any tools you use for adapting to change to either these types or another type of change?

Leading without authority

At the recent WeTest 2016 conference (http://www.wetest.co.nz/), I had the opportunity to talk about leading without authority. Many companies are ditching the more traditional, hierarchical team structure in favour of autonomous, flat structures where big sticks of authority no longer exist. This can be a dramatic change for a lot of people in positions of leadership or management. Where previously people often did things because they were told to, in this new structure teams are empowered to say ‘no’ and think for themselves.

Leading without authority can be a massive hurdle for all of us, especially if we’ve never really had to think about who we are as leaders, because our titles gave us everything we needed. I had come from a place where I was familiar with telling people what to do rather than listening to what people needed. Still being a leader but having all the authority taken away was a very steep learning curve for me. Having spent the past 15 years in all types of leadership positions, I wanted to share some of the myths I had busted along the way.

Myth: People are born <leaders>, <successful>, <lucky>

Some of the time we can look at people who have ‘gotten ahead’ of us in some way and think that they don’t deserve it, that they may have gotten lucky in some way. It’s all too easy to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves, thinking that success isn’t something that will happen to us. I’ve been fortunate to have met a lot of successful people in all types of disciplines and they all have something in common. They’ve all worked for it. I feel it’s important to make a distinction here in that I’m referring to the people that are respected in their fields as people in a community as well as an organisation.

When we’re introduced to people who have already achieved success, we’re often only seeing the tip of the iceberg. What we haven’t seen is the hours of dedication, training, self reflection, learning and growing that person has been doing for years before. I can guarantee that they’ve had a few failures of their own but they made the choice to keep trying and move forward. It’s also important to recognise that these people do these things for themselves, not for other people.

People who perform well, usually do so because they have a supportive environment which allows them the time to work at getting better.

They also have the right tools, resources and opportunities to continue moving forward. It’s important to keep this in mind when building teams by asking ourselves if we’re creating the right environment for people to grow and improve. Change the environment and the people will also change.  

Myth: To be a leader, I have to know more and do more than everyone else

Like many people I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. The thought that I was going to be found out in some way, that I didn’t know as much as people thought I knew. In my early 20’s I was given advice from an older colleague, ‘Once you accept that you’ll never know everything and that it’s ok, you’ll be much happier’. Turns out they were right. Being able to say ‘I don’t know but let’s find out’ is rather empowering. This is why we work in teams. To be able to share knowledge and collectively come to better decisions together.

A lot of my time spent in a position of leadership is listening and asking questions. Sometimes people just need a sounding board or a way to gain a different perspective of the issue or problem at hand. The other side of this is that if I know everything and do everything then I don’t give others the opportunity to learn and to grow. I am looking after myself at the expense of other people’s development.

Myth: Extroverts make the best leaders

Over the past few years there has been a shift towards classifying people as being either Introverted or Extroverted. On the face of it, we tend to classify people who speak up at meetings or at conferences, organise events, are good at networking and considered fun and loud as extroverts. Looking into this deeper, it appears this is just another way for us to classify or stereotype people. I believe that everyone is an individual and there are things that every person brings to what they are doing regardless of being introverted, extroverted or ambiverted.

No personality type makes a leader better or worse, instead we should be looking for the skills, qualities, values and behaviours a person exhibits when identifying leaders.

Human’s have an innate ability to do this. Leaders are the people we follow regardless of title. However, when it comes to job descriptions, we sometimes forget this and hire for an ‘outgoing, energetic, fun, enthusiastic person’ to lead our teams. These qualities, while inherently positive, are not always the things that make leaders great.  

Myth: If I fix all the problems people will respect me

This is a thought I believed for quite a while until I had the realisation that I needed to respect myself and my time first. I’ve worked in many offices where 10 hour days were expected and out of hours phone calls or email demanded an immediate response. I once got out of bed at 11 o’clock at night to head down to the office and check something for a senior. Talking about this to other people, I began to realise that this wasn’t healthy behaviour and that I wasn’t doing it because I cared, I did it because I was scared. Reflecting on this event, there was no reason why he couldn’t do it himself, or it could have waited until the following day.

Something happens when you become the person that fixes all the problems. You become the person that fixes all the problems. More and more often, people will continue to push boundaries and ask more of you until something breaks. The biggest lesson I learnt was to say ‘no’ and that I needed to respect myself first.

Myth: The team should do things my way

This is something I see people do quite often after a promotion or joining a new team and I am guilty of it myself. After being in a position where I was unable to make decisions and action my ideas, the excitement of being in a new role where I could make my mark was intoxicating. When joining a new team, I’ve since found the opposite to be more useful. Instead of jumping in, changing things and making a statement, it is better to relax, listen to others, gain trust and then help create an environment where people feel inspired to change.

When someone takes charge and makes decisions in isolation, teams can become apathetic, feeling as though their contribution or opinion isn’t valued.

Coming to the realisation that I am one person with my own thoughts, biases and fears, I can only do so much. Clones of myself really isn’t the best solution to anything. Utilising the creativity of the team by allowing people to do things their own way even if that includes making a mistake will foster a more harmonious team environment. Creating an environment where people feel safe to ask for help and share ideas so the team isn’t limited by their leader starts with giving trust and support to the team.  

Myth: If I had a different <title>, <team>, <workplace> things would be better

When things get hard, it’s easy to pack it all in and walk away. Unfortunately, if we walk away for the wrong reasons and don’t do the work to identify our own contribution to the situation, we can take our problems with us. It can be hard to be honest with ourselves, especially if we have been unkind or difficult in a situation when we had a choice to be kind and compassionate.

There are definitely reasons to want a new title, team or workplace like seeking a new challenge or opportunity to grow. I’ve rarely had success when I’ve made a change to get away from something. If stressful situations that are eerily familiar keep presenting themselves, the best thing to do is reflect and look at what was a common factor. Self reflection is not an easy thing to do and most people avoid it, choosing to deflect or blame something else outside of their control but it is the most valuable tool in my tool box. Being aware of my own contribution to an outcome, both positive and negative, allows me the space to grow and change.

Over the coming years, I’m sure other myths will be busted and I will learn new things about who I am as a person and a leader. I expect that I will change, evolve and grow but for now, my own truths about leadership are:

“It’s not about me”  

“Lead with empathy”