Jill Geisler: Focus on substance rather than your leadership style

September 13, 2022 6:03 pm
Jill Geisler

I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about leadership styles. You may even have been asked about yours. Perhaps it was while applying for a job. Or maybe a potential employee inquired about it during a job interview with you.

Did you have a short, snappy answer? I hope not. Leadership isn’t simple. I really believe we sell its complexity short if we label our approach with one word or phrase.

Don’t get me wrong. Respected voices have done so.

Recognize that labels have limits

Daniel Goleman and colleagues did an effective job 20 years ago in their book Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. They outlined six leadership styles — visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and commanding — and described when each is most and least effective. While they overlap in some ways and aren’t all-inclusive, they are worth a look.

Others teach about Servant Leadership, which, when first introduced by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, seemed pretty darn revolutionary. This particular style is almost theological, stressing service over power, others over self.

But having taught leaders for decades now, I’ve found framing things as style isn’t sufficient. It can lead people to think of leadership like a costume — something you put on to go to work. But it doesn’t work that way. When it comes to leadership, your substance matters more than anything else — and it inevitably affects how people describe you as a leader.

Substance isn’t a slogan. It’s the rich mix of what we believe and how we turn those beliefs into actions. It’s how we intentionally interact with all kinds of people in a wide array of circumstances.

That’s another thing about leadership: It doesn’t matter what we say our approach or style is, the definition that matters comes from those with whom we work. Those are the people who care most about your substance. You can label yourself a coaching leader, but if most of your staff call you a micromanager, their words win. You can say you’re a collaborative manager, but if they say you’re a top-down boss, their perspective becomes your label.

Prioritize substance over style

That’s why I’d rather write — and teach — about substance rather than style. Your substance is built on many things, but these are core:

  • Values
  • Skills
  • Preferences

Each helps define your approach to leadership. And each affects your behaviors in various circumstances. Let’s look at each one and consider some questions.

Your values. What do you stand for? What are your core beliefs about your role as a leader?

Do you believe collaboration makes teams better or slows things down? Do you think employees should check their outside lives at the door when they come to work or bring their whole selves? When faced with decisions, even when something is legal, do you take ethics into consideration, too? Is diversity and inclusion at the forefront of your thinking, or do people have to remind you about it? Do you value transparency and share as much information as possible, or do you think it should be tightly held at the top? Do you believe employees deserve training and coaching, or they should be sharp enough to figure things out themselves? Do you think staff should have voice (or even a vote) in many aspects of their work, or do you prefer that managers make those decisions?

Your skills. What talent and competencies are your hallmarks?

Do you have skills you honed as an employee that still serve you well as a leader (e.g., math, tech, writing, customer relationship management, organization and planning)? Are you a clear communicator? Are you good at giving feedback? Do you handle conflict well? Are you emotionally intelligent? Are you a strategic thinker who also knows how to execute a plan? Are you innovative? Creative? Resilient? Do you run a great meeting? Are you strong at leading people through change and challenge? Are you good under pressure? Are you a savvy judge of peoples’ potential? Are you able to help people and teams elevate the quality of their work?

Your preferences. How do your personality and work habits factor into your leadership?

Are you an extrovert who is comfortable speaking up or working a room, but wise enough to leave space for others to share ideas and the spotlight? Are you an introvert who excels at listening and processing ideas, comfortable with silences but capable of making great presentations or leading a conversation? Do you appreciate humor in the workplace, even if you aren’t the best joke teller in the house, or are you “all business”? Do you get joy from big-picture, blue-sky thinking, or would you rather turn abstract concepts into practical realities? Do you prefer public praise or private kudos? Do you extend trust until people lose it or withhold trust until you’re certain they’ve earned it? Do you love nailing down plans early, or do you prefer to leave options open until closer to deadline?

As you can see, the way you answer these questions helps determine not just your style — but the substance you bring to leading others.

Prepare to succeed

The next time you’re asked about your leadership style, don’t feel the need to have a snappy title that sums up the way you lead. Instead, describe the key values that guide you, the skills you’re proudest of and the preferences that make working with — and for — you a great experience. Here’s how that might look:

Question: Could you describe your leadership style?

Answer: People who work with me would say I put ethics, inclusion and collaboration at the core of what I do. I’m big on strategic thinking and trusting my team to do great execution. My goal is to be the calm in the storm and a guide, but not the star of every meeting. I’m a continuous learner who loves to help others learn and grow, too.

And for good measure, add that you know how to call upon your values, skills and preferences to match the demands of any moment and the needs of a diverse array of colleagues.

That’s how substance leads to success.


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