What Kind of Leader Do You Want to Be?

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Jim Champy

Leadership has been around since tribes first emerged in primitive societies. Someone had to be the leader—likely the most assertive member of the tribe—but these early ancestors never read books on participative management.

When Peter Drucker spoke on leadership, he often referenced the structure of the Prussian army and its highly directive, top down leadership style. Peter learned and taught from examples in history.

Modern Times

The contemporary discussion of leadership began in 1994 with the publication of On Becoming a Leader, a popular book written by Warren Bennis. At the time, Bennis was a highly respected professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The book was well written and very accessible.

Bennis drew the distinction between being a manager and a leader, and he argued that leadership could be learned.

A Breadth of Styles

In my consulting work and writing, I've encountered a wide range of leadership styles, especially with leaders trying to bring about change in their organizations.

On one extreme is the top-down, highly directive leader: Someone who tells people what to do, while not being a good listener; this style has a hard edge.

At the other extreme is the highly participative leader: Someone who actively seeks advice and gives others a voice as to what should happen; it’s a softer, more engaging style.

A Matter of Taste

What I learned from observing these extremes—and the many variations in between—is almost any leadership style will work under the right conditions. (What I mean by “work” is that the leader might accomplish something.) The leadership styles I like are a matter of taste. They produce a positive response to the question: Would I work for this person?

Leadership Discussions Are Ubiquitous

My personal interest in leadership was rekindled when I was asked to give a talk on the subject to an audience concerned with the development and growth of secondary school students. Leadership development has entered the curriculum of many schools, at all levels, and in many forms.

Defining Leadership

I knew I had to begin my talk by defining leadership—at least delivering a definition I liked. So I went to my “bible”—a book that came from discussions started at “Leadership: Advancing an Intellectual Discipline,” a symposium at the Harvard Business School in 2008. The book, Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, is 800 pages. It’s a serious treatise.

I had the privilege of attending that symposium. All the big management thinkers were there. (I was invited as a “practitioner,” not a “thinker.”) The symposium was stimulating, but every thinker and author had his or her own definition of leadership.

The definition I liked best described a leader as “able to fulfill vital functions that help meet their followers’ needs for meaning, social order, group identity and goal accomplishments.” Read this twice and think about it. There are more than words here.

Why This Works

This leadership style works for several reasons:

  • A leader’s job is to get people to work together collaboratively, a point made by several of the “thinkers.”
  • It debunks the “great man” or “great woman” leadership theory—that is, all great things happen because of a single mythical figure who heads an enterprise. There's no such thing as a totally “self-made” man or woman who is solely accountable for the success of an enterprise. Many others will have contributed.
  • An enterprise needs more inspired followers than leaders to do good. It’s as important to focus on the values and behaviors of your followers as it is to focus on your own leadership style. 

Your Choice

In the end, your leadership style will be your choice. You may have inherited certain behavioral characteristics that suggest you might be a good leader—maybe someone once told you that “you are a born leader.” But being “born a leader” is just where real leadership development starts. There's lots to learn, so how do you do it?

Can Leadership Be Taught or Learned?

There are plenty of books that try to teach how to become a leader. I just counted 20 of them on my own book shelves. If you want to read a book, just read one of Bennis’s books or Drucker’s collection on Becoming an Effective Executive. These books are filled with good ideas and advice.

There are also plenty of courses—in and outside schools—trying to teach leadership skills.

The Importance of Experience

Although there is a lot of wisdom and value in books and courses, I'm a believer that leadership is better learned than taught. There is nothing more valuable than real experiences in working with people to learn effective leadership and develop your own leadership style. Does your style work? Do you like who you are as a leader?

The unfortunate aspect of developing leadership skills is the best learning experiences are those that often present hard choices in difficult times.

As I look back on my own experiences, here’s where opportunity for leadership development showed up.

  • A serious business challenge: All enterprises eventually get into trouble; my companies did from time to time. It takes more than the person at the top to fix the problem. Learning to engage people to turn the crisis around is critical.
  • A dysfunctional team: Teams don’t always self-correct their behaviors. I’ve experienced a lot of this. Learning to lead from the side is required.
  • A valuable but problematic associate: Sometimes key people act up. Handling these occurrences requires careful attention. If a key person’s behavior violates the enterprise’s values, a leader might have to make the hard call to let the person go. These decisions were always clear to me, but still painful. I knew what was right and that my credibility as a leader would be diminished if I didn't act.

You can do exercises that simulate such conditions and learn from them, but there's nothing like the real thing.

Leadership Development Never Ends

Your leadership style is your choice—where it takes you isn’t, so be aware of where you're heading.