The Best Leadership Style Is the One That Challenges You Most
March 20, 2019
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As human beings, we love to judge things. When something is presented to us, our brain starts to search for that judgment – is this good or bad? Right or wrong? Better or worse than other options? It helps us to make sense of the information we have in front of us to make decisions and take the right next step.
And because we don’t check our humanity at the door when we get to the office, we bring these sensibilities to work. We continually assess and reassess our experiences and our actions to figure out the best way to achieve our goals. What’s the right way to run a meeting? The best way to manage employees? The perfect way to have tough conversations? In some contexts, this works quite well and leads to an understanding of the most effective and ineffective ways to approach different situations. However, there are a few areas where applying these types of judgments might actually hinder your progress.
Leadership style is one of those things. Judging an approach to leadership as good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse may not help to uncover the true leadership potential that exists because every behavior can be both a strength or a weakness depending on how it’s used.
A primer of leadership approaches
There are many ways you can think about the different leadership styles that exist, but one of the most effective is to go back to a tried and true behavioral model that can be applied in many different types of situations: The DISC Model. Created a century ago by Harvard Psychologist William Marston (yes, the same person that invented Wonder Woman!), DISC is a straightforward tool that allows us to classify different styles of behavior and apply them in different ways as a means of understanding strengths, challenges and motivations. Applying it to leadership style looks a little something like this:
- Individuals with a Dominant leadership style will be perceived as being commanding, bold, results-driven and charismatic. This is someone who is in charge and whose style is most closely associated with executives and CEOS. D’s make decisions quickly, present assertively and with confidence, and they get things done. They also come across as unemotional and impatient, and aren’t known for caring about the mental well-being of their colleagues.
- Individuals with the Influencer leadership style are the team’s cheerleaders. They are active leaders, love for projects to move quickly and are not afraid to go after big, bold ideas. But they are also much more affirming than those with the Dominant style. They value their social relationships and a collaborative environment that enables a shared sense of accomplishment when a project is successful. They can also be a bit impulsive, disorganized and (because they love to move on to the next bold idea) can tend to lack follow-through.
- Individuals with the Steady leadership style are commonly referred to as servant leaders. They are humble, put the needs of their team members first, and create an inclusive, stable environment. The environments they create make team members feel genuinely appreciated, listened to, cared for and respected. On the flip side, because they are so accommodating they may hesitate to embrace new ideas that would rock the boat. As such, they can sometimes come across as afraid of change.
- Individuals with the Conscientious leadership style are the more precise, analytical of the bunch. This is a style that loves digging into the data to logically understand the nuanced complexities of the situation. They will always value the quality of execution more than the speed of delivery, even if that slows new initiatives to a crawl. And because of this detail orientation, they can overanalyze situations. They can also be overly critical of themselves and the people they work with, creating challenging interpersonal dynamics.
Everyone has leadership potential
No single person will encompass all four of these styles naturally. Most people find that they either fit into one of those categories nicely, or are a combination of two styles. But regardless of where you fall, you can see from these brief descriptions that every approach has strengths and weaknesses. In fact, you might even think the best leader is a combination of all four of these approaches!
And you’d be exactly right. The key to successful leadership does not come from following one textbook approach or defaulting to what’s most comfortable. It comes from understanding what will best serve the goal you and your team are shooting for and adapting your approach to what will best serve the situation.
Sometimes that’s being the commanding dominant who takes charge. Other times that’s being the cheerleader and lifting everyone’s spirits. Sometimes that’s about rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever you can to help out the team. And sometimes that’s about knowing that it’s okay to slow things down to achieve a higher level of quality. There is no “best” or “right” way to be a leader that applies to all situations. Instead, organizations need leaders who can embrace all of the different styles, knowing when to use each approach and when to switch gears.
Pursuing discomfort is key to growth
Now, here’s the really good news: No matter which style you are, you can do anything that any other style can do. This is where the critics of work and personality assessments get it wrong. They think such tools put people into boxes that they are not expected to deviate from. In fact, self-mastery of your natural style does just the opposite. Once you know what your box is, you can make the decision to step out of it! But you have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable in the process.
Our work style is our comfort zone. These are the things we do by default, almost as if we are running on auto-pilot. But if we agree that the best approach comes from combining all four of the leadership styles discussed, and being selective based on the needs of the situation, that means we will be required to step outside of our comfort zones to do it.
For example, if you prefer a fast pace but are in a situation that calls for slowness, that will feel uncomfortable. Or, if your approach is commanding, but your team needs a pep talk, giving that pep talk will be uncomfortable. Or if you tend to be reserved, but the situation needs you to take command and act quickly, that will feel uncomfortable.
But just because something feels uncomfortable doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means that you have to push through the discomfort and do it anyway, knowing that it will enable you to achieve your greatest leadership triumph.
Love your natural style, then go from there
Pushing outside of your comfort zone is no easy task. The best way to start is to embrace your natural leadership style, with all of its strengths and flaws. Never look at another person and say “I wish I were more like them.” Or “They are a much better leader than I am.” Instead, tell yourself that you simply approach things differently. Recognize that you have strengths where they have weaknesses.
Pushing outside your comfort zone and doing the really tough stuff gets a lot easier when you appreciate all that you already have going for you. After all, you are no worse off than anyone else. And then just go for it – embrace your discomfort as part of the process of growth. Every single time you try something new, it will get a little easier. Before you know it, you’ll be doing things that you never would have imagined yourself doing before.
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A version of this article appeared previously on Forbes.com