Leadership, like anything dealing with people, is nuanced and must be situationally adaptable. There are tons of definitions (more than 850!) and many different qualities, characteristics, and variations which we’ll refer to as styles.
You may have heard of terms like authoritative, coercive, or more recent ones like servant-leader, leading from the front, visionary, and more.
Most importantly, we should start with identifying and accepting the qualities and strengths you bring to the table. There’s a reason you’ve advanced or been promoted into leadership. Years of service and technical prowess is just part of the equation, but that alone doesn’t make you a leader. When you’re leading people, to be more specific: leading intelligent people, you’ll now be delicately balancing the needs of the company with the demands and scrutiny of a seasoned team.
You’re now tasked with getting a team of people who, individually, are experts in their own areas, and must convince/coerce/goad them into working together to achieve an outcome that benefits the company. It could mean getting that beta rolled out to production by the end of quarter, resolving your largest customer’s problem by the end of the week, or simply doing what they’ve always done but more efficiently so the company can save money. Understanding different leadership styles will help you better understand your own qualities and equip you to better lead your team.
This might be the easiest to understand since people are familiar with the opposite: dictatorial or autocratic leadership. Given a choice, most employees (and people!) would prefer a leader that provides the support the team actually needs and runs interference or removes blockers to allow the team to operate most efficiently. If you’ve taken the time to listen to what your team needs and put your thoughts into building a solution that also aligns with the company’s budget/values, you are providing your team with the support and tools they need.
Leading From the Front
Another easy one to understand and explain since this may fall naturally for those that were promoted from an IC role. You’re a “player/coach” who is now the team leader, but has the skills to dive back in when needed (crunch time!) or act as a point of escalation when high-level assistance is needed. Sure you’re a guru, but you also possess other leadership qualities like…
Establishing a Clear Vision
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
People follow leaders who can clearly illustrate their idea, their vision of what the team’s hard work will achieve. If you’ve ever had a manager that only kept up with the day-to-day “care and feeding” of the team including such mundane tasks as: timesheets, expenses, training requests, etc., then you may have not experienced a true leader. A leader should be able to inspire those who follow by making sure everyone clearly and explicitly understands what the future state will be. Without a clear, unifying direction, team members will be confused, inefficient, and very possibly disappointed. Remember, you’re dealing with highly intelligent employees that have years of their own experience and can question ambiguity. If people need to see something more tangible, it may take an investment to actually show (or let them help build) the future.
Leaders should be willing to empower and enable their team to do their best work possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as encouragement and kudos. Get out of their way, provide some cover, and let them do what they’re best at. Let them take calculated risks for the right reasons. Maybe they’ve been wanting to take a tangentially-related training class that a previous leader shot down. Let them take it and see if it makes them a better contributor with broader experience and knowledge. It will certainly help their loyalty and job satisfaction. Leaders aren’t afraid to empower their team members to surpass them technically. Hire the best, give them the support they need, and let them thrive.
“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs
Listen, Learn, then Customize
There are countless books and articles on leadership and this doesn’t even count as scratching the surface. You will (hopefully) be interested enough to start digging in and learning more about the many different leaders and leadership styles that are out there. I’d also recommend finding stories of failure or poor leadership since it’s not always obvious why they might have failed, specifically. Lastly, don’t try to become something you’re not. Every leader is different and you’re probably a unique combination of several different facets of leadership styles to varying degrees. Embrace your strengths, shore up your weaknesses, listen to feedback, and continue to adapt and evolve your own unique leadership style.