Leadership style matters. And it matters more than you may think. Your leadership style is pivotal in how you build relationships with your peers, stakeholders and your own manager. It’s also how you drive your team to get the best results they possibly can.
The wrong leadership style can have disastrous consequences. Whether it’s a low-performing team that all consider you their good mate or a high-performing team that is burnt out and resentful or any other combination of ineffective and undesirable outcomes.
But there is more to it than opening a leadership book and pointing your finger at your chosen style. Leadership coach and IML ANZ leadership program facilitator, Grant Withrington, says that leaders actually need a deep understanding of themselves in order to define, or create, their best leadership style.
The one skill all exceptional leaders have
Self-awareness plays a really important role in defining your leadership style, but according to Withringon, it goes a step further than this.
“Self-mastery is something that all exceptional leaders have in common,” says Withrington. “Self-awareness is just one part of this. If a leader has self-mastery, it means they understand their personal style and how to utilise the best of their style to get results.
It’s widely accepted that good leaders are authentic. But Withrington argues without self-mastery, a leader may fall into the trap of believing authenticity means being true to their style without regard to the impact it may have on others around them.
Instead, the opposite is true.
“The more we understand ourselves and pursue self-mastery, the more we’re able to understand what we need to do differently or better to lead our teams effectively,” explains Withrington.
“Great leaders are authentic. Authenticity doesn’t mean that you behave without regard to the impact your behaviour has on others. Authenticity with self-mastery means you’re mindful of the impact you have on others and the outcome you’re trying to achieve.”
The importance of self-awareness
Many years ago, Withrington learnt a very valuable lesson. That lesson would ultimately set him on a trajectory to the leadership coaching work he does now.
“After 12 years in the Australian Defence Force, I accepted that you followed the orders you were given by those in command, and those you commanded followed the orders you gave,” recalls Withrington. “The directive style of leadership worked in the defence environment back in my day… not so much once I transitioned to the corporate world.
“When I realised that my personal style wasn’t helping me to achieve what I was aiming for, I started to look at what makes the most difference to success in the workplace. I discovered that we all have personal preferences for how to communicate and operate in the world. Some of these preferences enhance success while others detract from it.”
Grant’s personal story is relevant because this was his realisation of the importance of self-awareness and, ultimately, self-mastery, in defining one’s leadership style.
Personal introspection is critical. In order to get the best results out of your team, you have to get the best results out of yourself first.
The intersection of personal style and leadership style
What is perhaps most interesting about leadership style is how intertwined it is, or should be, with your own personal style. Your best leadership style is informed by your personality and your communication preferences.
“Your personal style is your anchor,” explains Withrington. “It’s always there and it keeps bringing you back to who you are.”
Withrington suggests using tools like DiSC® and Genos® Emotional Intelligence to understand what that personal style is and how to implement it effectively. These profiling tools can give great insight into how a leader naturally relates to and communicates with others as they work to develop their self-awareness.
“What is really important for leaders in defining their leadership style is to understand how different personal styles work together,” explains Withrington. “At the end of the day, leadership isn’t about giving orders or directions. It’s about building meaningful connections with people so you can draw out the very best of them.
“Actually, developing your leadership style is an organic process. You need to understand the sort of leader you want to be and then, using your personal preferences and style, craft a leadership style that will get you the results you want.”
Leadership styles are like fingerprints
In just the same way no two fingerprints are the same, no two people will have exactly the same leadership style.
Why does this matter? Withrington explains that while you may be inspired by other leaders around you in defining your own leadership style, it’s important to make your leadership style your own.
“Your leadership style is as unique to you as your fingerprints. If you want to make your mark on the world, you need to understand what your fingerprint says about you,” says Withrington.
This also means that you should exercise caution in trying to emulate the style of another leader you admire.
“When you follow the path of a leadership style that doesn’t come naturally to you, there’s a good chance you will be unsuccessful. It’s inauthentic and trying to be someone that you’re not makes leadership so much harder.
“If you see a leader that you would like to emulate, look at the values that they exhibit and check whether they align with your own. Don’t choose a leader to emulate based on what they achieve but rather on how they achieve it. If how they achieve it aligns with how you like to operate and you share similar values then that style may work for you.”
You and another leader can both achieve the same things but each do it in your own unique way and style.
Flexing your style
The reality is, no one leadership style works in every situation. A leadership style ends up as a collection of different styles that can be used in different situations to achieve the best outcomes. The skill for leaders comes in having the adaptability to flex their style.
“If you’re familiar with DiSC, you’ll know that it talks about preferences,” says Withrington. “No matter where your preferences fall within the DiSC, we all have attributes and skills within each profile. Everyone can lean into different profiles, skills, attributes and preferences. And it’s the same with your leadership style. You can – and should – flex your style to suit the situation.
“There might be times when a more hands-off leadership style is appropriate or other times may call for more of a coaching style. What is consistent is the anchor to your personality or personal style. How you execute each style is driven by your personality and your values. The more self-aware you are, the more aware you can be of when you need to stretch and bring out a part of your personality you ordinarily wouldn’t show.”
While it may feel uncomfortable to stretch into a leadership style or adopt leadership qualities that don’t come so naturally, Withrington says that the more you flex, the easier it gets. But also, your worldview, whether you have a fixed or growth mindset, can play a role in your ability to flex.
“People who have a fixed mindset, the belief that attributes such as talent and intelligence are fixed, sometimes find it harder to change and adapt as required. When you’re happy in your comfort zone, it’s scary to think about stepping outside of that.
“The good news is, we now know that a growth mindset can be developed with practice. In truth, anybody who wants to be not just a good leader but an exceptional leader needs to make the decision to step outside of their comfort zone.”
Sense checking your leadership style
How do you know if your leadership style is the right one? Withrington suggests using three gauges to determine its suitability for you.
- Is it good for you? Do you find that you’re growing through using this style? Are you bringing the best out in yourself when you are this leader?
- Is it good for others? How does your leadership style impact your team? Do they thrive, learn, grow, succeed and do purposeful work?
- Is it good for the organisation? Are you and your team delivering results?
If your style works for you, for your team and for the organisation, then it’s likely the right one.
Ultimately, what you are trying to do as a leader is to create an environment in which people can do their very best.
“Think of being a leader as like being a gardener,” explains Withrington. “If your leadership style is built around how you deal with difficult personalities, behaviours or problems, you’ll forever be running around the garden pulling out the weeds. You’re actually doing yourself a disservice by going down this path.
“The alternative is that you use the very best of your skills and attributes to create an environment that draws the best out of people. In this case, you are planting the right type of seeds in your garden, nurturing them and watching them grow.”
So, before you even think about defining your leadership style, you need to take a step back and look in the mirror. That’s where the journey to your leadership style really starts.