What I’ve Learned About Leadership: There Are Many Ways to Be a Great Leader

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ONE OF THE FIRST things you learn about leadership is that there are a lot of ways to be a leader and demonstrate leadership.

Years ago I had a boss who tried to tell me that I wasn’t a leader. Want to know my response? “Hey, I AM a leader — I’m just not your kind of leader.

This was my point: Leadership comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and no one way is the right way.

Not all leaders remind you of George Patton

The long ago boss who challenged my ability to lead people thought that you weren’t really a leader unless you led like George Patton. In his mind, you only demonstrated leadership by jumping up on the desk and shouting for everyone else to follow you.

George C. Scott won an Academy Award for playing Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Well, as much as I admire the leadership of Patton, his aggressive and over-the-top style only worked in a specific instance and for a fixed period of time. In fact, his leadership style damn near torpedoed his career — and his fame — before it even really got started.

The leadership style I possess is more low-key and sustainable than what my former boss was used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

This went through my mind while reading this Corner Office column in The New York Times. It was with Carter Murray, worldwide CEO of the advertising agency FCB (aka, Foote, Cone & Belding), and it got into the leadership styles of bosses and the challenges employees have trying to put up with that.

Two types of leadership

Here’s what Carter Murray said when asked about “what people should do when they feel as if they’re stuck with a bad boss:

“Thirty years ago, when people stayed in one company, maybe they felt they didn’t have a choice. But today, with the fluidity of the marketplace, you do have that choice. You have a lot more power to understand your options than you did before. You want to work for people you can relate to and be inspired by, and believe in.

I think leadership is fundamentally changing. There are two schools of leadership.

There is one style, which is you’re going to come work for me, and I’m going to pay you this, and I’m going to judge you. I’ll decide your bonus, and I’ll decide when you’re ready to be promoted.

There is another (style) where you say to someone, “Look, I think you’re amazing, incredibly talented and you can do even more than you think in your wildest dreams. And I’m not going to manage you to do that. You will determine that yourself. What I can promise you is I’ll create a culture where that happens.”

The big challenge with that type of leadership is that you’ve got to hire top-notch talent, and, you need to have even stronger checks and balances in your organization’s cultural infrastructure.

There are a lot of great leadership styles out there

Four great American leaders: George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln

Here’s my take: I don’t agree with Carter Murray’s two styles of leadership because he makes it seem that his are the only two styles embraced by forward-thinking leaders and managers. In fact, there are many different styles that smart leaders can embrace, and the very best ones assess the situation at hand and then match the leadership style that works best with that situation.

Don Shula, who won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was famous for completely changing his coaching approach when the skill set of his players changed. While many coaches would try to stick with their long-time philosophy and force fit their talent into it, Shula would size up the strengths of his players and then adjust his system to play to their strengths.

Although I like Carter Murray’s notion that some people need to be challenged to push themselves to higher levels, that is simply one approach that will only work in certain situations with certain types of people. To say that there are only “two schools of leadership” and that it is either one or the other is terribly foolish and short-sighted because leadership is a helluva lot more complex than that.

In fact, Murray’s approach to leadership reminds me of that boss I had so long ago who told me I wasn’t a leader because I didn’t fit some cookie-cutter mold he had for leadership. I thought it was dumb back then and it’s equally dumb when you read about it today in The New York Times.

If I’ve learned anything managing people, it’s this: Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and it takes all sorts of approaches. There is no one right way, or one “best” way, to lead people. If someone tries to tell you there is, well, it’s a pretty good clue they really don’t know all that much about leadership at all.

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