Tuesday, December 06, 2016

How Do You Prefer to be Led?

What’s your preferred leadership style?  Not for your own leadership, but for the people who lead your institution?

When we talk about leadership styles, it’s usually in the second person.  “How do you lead?”  And that’s fine, as far as it goes; self-awareness is both crucial and unevenly distributed, so encouraging its development is probably a good thing.  

But most of us have ways we, for lack of a better way of putting it, prefer to be led.  We just don’t talk about those as much, probably on the assumption that good leadership or bad leadership is self-evident.  

It isn’t.  If this election didn’t teach us anything else, it should have settled that question.  Where one person sees refreshing candor, another sees disqualifying barbarity.  Taste can feel objective because it’s so strong, but a false sense of objectivity just leads to confusion and anger when confronted by someone whose taste is clearly different.

For present purposes, though, I’ll just focus on workplaces.  

In higher ed, there’s a set of words we know we’re supposed to use to describe ideal leaders.  They’re supposed to be “dynamic,” “collaborative,” “charismatic,” “persuasive,” and “approachable.”  But in practice, I’ve seen people use those words to mean diametrically different things.  

Some people like the “football coach at halftime” model.  That’s the leader who chews the scenery, bellows with confidence, points, and is seldom seen in public without absolute confidence in whatever position he’s holding at the time.  To them, the football coach conveys conviction and strength.  He’s the Alpha Dog, and that’s that.  I’m not a fan of this one -- it confuses fear with respect, and it tends to whittle down acceptable points of view to the one the Alpha Dog holds at the moment -- but many people like it.  They like the apparent clarity, even when the words themselves don’t make sense.

Others prefer the “group therapy” model.  This is the leader who tries to get inside everyone’s head and make them feel better.  Done well, it can be nurturing, and I’ve seen some people pull it off.  But it’s a fine line between nurturing and controlling, and in a crisis, it’s easy to cross that line.  It also assumes a level of clairvoyance that just doesn’t exist.  I once had a boss in this mold who told me to my face what he thought I was thinking and why I was wrong; he was so far off-base I had to consciously tell myself not to roll my eyes.  I quickly figured out that his projections were really about him, and I was just a prop.  Again, not a fan.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the “distant and vague” leader can be successful, too.  This is the one who isn’t around much, plays her cards close to her vest, speaks mostly platitudes in public, and delegates like it’s going out of style.  My best guess here is the group therapy dynamic in reverse; the “led” can project whatever they want onto a blank screen.  The distant and vague leader also creates considerable space for empire builders within the organization, who can then be counted on to defend their territory.  When the distant/vague leader has some measure of charisma, people will actually compete to please her.  It gets weird.

For myself, I’m a fan of the “lead by example” model.  These are the ones who may not suck up most of the oxygen in the room, but over time, provide a sense of consistency and integrity that can enable thoughtful risk-taking.  The upside of this sort of leader is that internal politics tend to be minimal; what you see is what you get, and it’s usually possible to have reasoned discussions rather than just acceding to the view of the leader.  The downside is that the virtues of this sort of leadership tend to show themselves only over time; at first impression, they may escape notice entirely.  Low-information observers may miss them.  Some will never catch on.

These are just a few off the top of my head; it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.  But the larger point is that when we fail to think through how we prefer to be led, we’re likelier to choose leaders who won’t wear well over time.  The leadership literature tends not to ask this question, but it should.  Wise and worldly readers, how do you prefer to be led?