Leadership Is YOUnique, Not Replicated

First-time managers often think that they need to change who they are and “adopt” a leadership style that fits with their image of what a leader “should” be. That’s because they assume that leadership is something you try, a “style” that’s cultivated and intentional. By Joy Humbarger, Change Expert, 08.2017

They ask, “Who should I model myself after? What kind of leader should I be?” These are great questions to consider, but leading well isn’t about acting a certain way; it’s about being true to your core values and embodying them in your work.

A better starting point for developing an effective, authentic leadership style is to simply ask yourself these questions:

WHO AM I? 

What am I here to do? What difference do I want to make in the world? Think about those things you get most passionate about. Those are likely part of your WHO. What is it that you like to do? If you weren’t in this leadership position, what would be your natural instinct in situations of decision? Is it like you to help out so that people will notice you and your good words, or more like you to shine the light on the work of others?

WHAT DO I BELIEVE IN?

What are the values that drive your behavior? If no one was looking, what would you do? Your values will affect your view of your team members, your hiring practices, your work ethic, and the work ethic you expect from others. Your belief system guides your decision making, and provides the lens through which you view the world.

HOW DO I LIKE TO HELP PEOPLE?

Think of the last few times you’ve helped others on your team. When did you jump in and lend a hand? Why did you jump in and what did you contribute? If your instinct is to let others learn on their own and rush to their aid only in times of crisis, it’s likely that will be your instinct as a leader, too. Are you always looking for ways to help others improve, giving advice and feedback freely? Then your preferred leadership style may be more about active mentoring, rather than independent trial and error.

Understanding your preferred style allows you to evaluate when and how to use that style, and it helps you recognize when to cultivate a different one that would be better for a particular situation.

WHAT WAS MY FAVORITE MANAGER LIKE?

Think of the best managers you’ve had over the course of your career. Which traits of theirs did you most admire? We often lead the way we were led. Zeroing in on your favorite manager’s traits helps you intentionally adopt leadership habits that others will appreciate and respond to. If you loved having a hands-on manager, your instinct may lead you to be more hands-on, too.

WHAT WAS MY LEAST FAVORITE MANAGER LIKE?

Now think of the worst manager you’ve had: What traits of theirs did you most detest? Say that manager couldn’t keep anything confidential among his team, which did nothing but stir the pot. Instead, you may want to encourage your team members to first address any complaints directly among one another and try to reach a resolution that way. The things that bothered you the most as somebody else’s direct report may be the same things you instinctively turn away from once you become a manager yourself.  Reflecting on your least favorite manager gives you the opportunity to identify barriers and gaps in your own style, and identify ways to change or to fill those gaps.

WHAT MAKES ME FEEL FULFILLED?

Think back to that last time you felt fulfilled professionally. What was the scenario that led to that? Perhaps it was the visibility you gained by working on a particular project, or maybe it was just about learning a new skill on the job. These are likely the opportunities you will seek out for your team, too. This shows that recognition and learning are important to you.

HOW IMPORTANT TO ME ARE SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK?

Do you emphasize your social ties around the office? If, as an individual contributor, you really loved impromptu lunches and happy hours with your colleagues, your management style may be based on social trust and belonging. If, on the other hand, you’ve tended to value results above all else, you may naturally lead a more results-driven team. Neither approach is better than the other; you just need to adopt the one that matches whatever your authentic preferences have been.

Leadership doesn’t come from the books you have read, the trainings you have taken or the courses you have studied. While those are helpful to begin thinking about the kind of leader you want to be, the truth is that your leadership style is already inside you. Your values as an individual team member simply come to life in a different way as a manager.

If you take an inventory of your work habits, values, priorities, and the response from your team and don’t like what you see, don’t worry. Change is possible, but takes time. Start small. Don’t try to reinvent yourself entirely. Build up your strengths and look for areas to supplement them. Adapt your approach depending on the situation or the direct report you’re trying to coach or help. Whatever you do, don’t try to be someone you’re not.

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