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We need different words to talk about leadership

By changing how we ask people to describe their approach to leadership, we can understand individuals better.

A common interview question is to ask someone to describe their leadership style or your approach to leadership. I find this a puzzling question. It doesn't puzzle me because I can't describe how I approach leadership. I frequently referred to Daniel Goleman's 2000 HBR article on the six leadership styles that produce results to explain how I approach leadership and flex my style. No, what perplexes me is the focus on the mechanical actions of leadership rather than how a person views themselves as a leader, and thus the frame of reference from which they approach leadership.

I'm beginning to believe that asking people to describe their leadership style in one word or action makes more sense. For example, the word "General" immediately conjures images of someone in command, most likely acting in a command and control manner. This individual is likely to be decisive, expects to be obeyed, and able to make difficult decisions in the heat of the moment. It immediately gives you a sense of the approaches you might expect from this person in a leadership position.

While a general is an obvious word that might be used to describe leadership there are many others and those others may serve the purpose of the role better. For example, when I think of the word I would use to describe my leadership style it would be: guide. Why?

First, because I have always loved the mountains, being outside, and working as a guide or with guides. The more I've thought about it, the more I've realised that the framework of guiding is a perfect analogy for my leadership. In practice, here’s how I would use the idea of a guide’s mental model to describe my leadership approach and decisions.

  1. It is focused on forming teams to achieve difficult goals: leadership in the mould of a guide is about achieving difficult and stretching goals in often difficult circumstances. Typically, a guide forms a team that has only recently become a cohesive unit capable of achieving these goals. In short, as a leader, I want to seek out challenging objectives and build teams capable of achieving them. This is not the same as a leader who views themselves as a gardener. A gardener carefully manages their garden to make the most of what is already there. Neither approach is bad, but the role and circumstances may prefer one over the other.

  2. Leadership that stabilises, providing a steadying and calming influence: Guides are strong and calming influences, capable of approaching leadership dynamically, selecting an appropriate style for each group circumstance while weighing the risks of action or inaction. Guides provide a strong framework for a group to consolidate without crowding out others or overpowering group dynamics. Guides frequently lead by example as well as words.

  3. Balance practical and technical knowledge: guides show a good understanding of their areas of work, but they are rarely referred to as "specialists." They can balance practical knowledge with more technical skills to produce effective results. They don't use a lot of jargon or try to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, they concentrate on striking a balance between practical and technical tasks to keep the team moving toward their goal. Furthermore, a guide is constantly learning about their skills and the skills of the group and looking for ways to mitigate weaknesses and strengthen strengths to achieve the goal.

  4. Develop, coach and build skills: A guide contributes to the group's skill improvement. Guides are adept at identifying the best qualities in each individual and assisting them in working together as a cohesive team to achieve their collective and personal goals. Through a combination of coaching and mentoring, they create a safe space where individuals can push beyond their comfort zone to grow and progress.

  5. Balance decisiveness with inclusion: A guide is capable of making difficult decisions, taking control in a dangerous situation, and exercising compassion all at the same time. They may have to ask someone to turn back or make the difficult decision not to ascend a specific peak. They do this with empathy, which helps people understand why, explaining the reasons in a way that allows individuals to grow with them. This could apply in business when a leader assists individuals in understanding the business rationale of reductions while still taking the difficult decision to let an individual or team go.

The concept of a guide provides the framework within which I organise my leadership behaviour and translate ideas into action. In one word it effectively evokes how I see myself and my role as a leader. I look for challenging objectives and groups to help grow into high performing teams. I hope to challenge that group of people and work in their favour to help them achieve their goals. Guides create and maintain a safe environment by bringing people together to help them grow and succeed.

By changing how we ask people to describe their approach to leadership, we can understand individuals better. And as importantly, break with the traditional associations of leadership with power and male roles - “General” for example. There are lots of leadership styles and ways of articulating an approach, perhaps your leadership style is best described by an essential but overlooked role when it comes to leadership, like, 'bus driver', 'hostage negotiator', 'teacher', or 'mother'. Being able to describe your leadership style in a word is a great way to think through how you are most comfortable leading, and to challenge our dominant models of leaders.


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If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.


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