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How to develop a unique leadership style

Leadership style is deeply personal. How you approach it reflects both your personal values and professional commitment. We are all drawn to people who engage, excite, and empower, through dynamic leadership. 

When done right, leadership has a significant impact on an organization. The 2015 Global Leadership Forecast cited 114% higher sales and 70% lower turnover in companies that invested in leadership development and training. Self-aware, confident leaders with ample training perform better, and so do their companies. 

In this article you will:

  • Learn how High Empathy / High Accountability leaders use different styles to impact their organizations.
  • Discover how leaders often fall into one of several archetypes, each with strengths that can impact their effectiveness.
  • Learn the risk of trying to change your leadership style without guidance and attempting to force-fit your values to a corporate vision.
  • Help your organization succeed by developing a unique leadership style through personal and professional development.

Developing a Clear Role for Leaders

Leadership development is a significant pain point for organizations of all sizes. It seems companies understand the need but are struggling to meet it. In a recent study by McKinsey, only 10% of CEOs believed their current leadership development efforts have the desired impact.  A big part of this divide is that the traditional model of a “successful leader” doesn’t apply to everyone. 

Not all leaders are the no-nonsense stereotypes we see on Shark Tank. Many great leaders are quiet, nimble, organized, and rely on their direct reports to execute on organizational plans. 

Balance is key. Some leaders are loud and boisterous by default, and might need to soften their approach. Others are naturally quiet, but find that they need to speak up to get results. 

Traditional management training often groups everyone together, without taking personal style into consideration. For new leaders attempting to acclimate, this creates challenges. They can memorize a training manual and emulate their bosses, but often won’t develop the self-awareness needed to excel. And as a result, the people around them struggle.

What Makes a Leader Successful?

There are a lot of individual factors that influence success for a leader. Your core values. Your personality traits. Your strengths and weaknesses. Your company’s mission and core values. Every one of these affects how you approach leadership. 

At the same time, the building blocks of leadership success haven’t changed much in the last few decades. The recently published HBR Leader’s Handbook identifies six fundamental practices of good leaders:

  1. Bring people together around a core vision
  2. Create an actionable strategy to realize that vision
  3. Build a team of exceptional talent to execute  the strategy
  4. Maintain a results-oriented approach to the strategy
  5. Look for ways to innovate and implement new ideas
  6. Invest in themselves to become a better leader capable of carrying out the first five

Not everyone steps into management with these skills in hand and no two people use them the same way. Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter approach to leadership development rarely works. You can’t drill strategic vision and an eye for talent into someone. The good news is, these are learned traits supported by mentorship, training, and coaching. 

Different Leadership Styles Can Achieve Similar Results

While there are several common leadership styles, you may not fit into any one of them. The one that’s right for you will almost certainly change throughout your career. Through self-awareness, you can understand your natural tendencies and how they can both help and hinder your efforts.  

3 High Empathy / High Accountability Leadership Styles  

1. Democratic Leadership

Democratic leaders excel in delegating and then listening to feedback from a diverse array of employees. They also tend to favor a more collaborative decision-making process.

Indra Nooyi, CEO and chairman of PepsiCo, is loved by her employees for her hands-on, personal approach to leadership: “I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” Nooyi understands the value of the people she leads and treats them accordingly. 

Google’s CEO, Larry Page, has long encouraged a democratic approach to decision making, project selection, and other key elements of how Google operates. That same ethos is still a significant part of Google’s culture.

2. Transformational Leadership

All leaders need to be transformational in key situations. Some leaders go further. They are continually reinventing, reimplementing, and reimagining how things work. It’s a never-ending pursuit of “just a little bit better.” 

Leadership expert James Burns defined transformational leaders as those who work to change existing thoughts. Transformational leaders strive for the greater good. A great example of a transformational leader is Nelson Mandela, who dedicated his life to ending Apartheid in South Africa and led his nation into healing.

Mary Barra, CEO of GM, also exemplifies transformational leadership. Barra served as an executive assistant, product developer, electrical engineer, and plant manager before rising to CEO in 2014. As CEO, she has simplified company messaging (zero crashes, zero emissions), navigated a congressional inquiry, and effected substantial company-wide change.

3. Coaching Leadership

Leaders who coach and adopt a hands-on management style are often highly effective. They help identify strengths and weaknesses in their direct reports and guide them in becoming better employees. They have an eye for talent and build their team based on not only current strengths, but also potential growth.

In 1965, during a time when women were pushing to redefine their role in society,  Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor-in-chief of a struggling Cosmopolitan magazine. Brown remade the magazine as a voice for young women “to get everything out of life.” Brown challenged her employees to do the same and to push against the status quo. She invested in potential when she saw it, working hands-on with writers to create the voice that would make Cosmopolitan the world’s most successful women’s magazine. 

History’s great resistance leaders illustrate how effective a coaching style can be. Mahatma Gandhi taught and empowered a nation to act when no one thought it could. Surrounding himself with mentors, Gandhi never stopped learning or teaching in pursuit of his goals. 

Create Your Unique Leadership Style

The styles listed above are representative of several broad archetypes. Your personal leadership style will be a cross-section of these traits. Many will come naturally to you, some will have to be learned, and others will develop through experience. To be successful:

  1. Identify your default approach to leadership, how you react to stress, and what gaps might exist within such a style. 
  2. With the help of a coach, mentor or colleagues, identify the core strengths around which you can build. 
  3. At the same time, identify your weaknesses and build an action plan to work on them in the context of your leadership style.
  4. Push yourself to try new things on a regular basis. A successful leader is willing to move  outside of their comfort zone to improve.
  5. Ask for feedback regularly, not just from your superiors, but from colleagues, mentors, outside perspectives (such as a coach), and from your direct reports.

If you’re struggling to identify your leadership style, finding the right coach can be a pivotal move for your career. Executive coaches help identify key strengths and weaknesses, teach you how to communicate more effectively, leverage peer feedback, and evaluate how direct reports see you. A successful coaching engagement leads to an action plan for implementing change and clarity around your leadership style.

Check out our ebook, 10 Leadership Styles You Should Know, to learn more about different approaches to leadership and when and how to apply them.