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I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership style for a large part of the first decade of my career.
I didn’t care at the time. It wasn’t relevant. Although in hindsight, I certainly had a style, it was more muscle than finesse.
My focus was on driving results through people and pushing, pushing, pushing. It was a simple formula. Drive results + make bosses happy = growth in responsibility and income. And it worked. The results were there, but the relationships were shallow…mostly transactional, and the work was less than rewarding. There was little consideration for the bigger picture of the people or environment I was creating.
I was managing, and as it turns out, and not very effectively. There certainly was no visible sign of leadership in my approach.
Fortunately, a wise senior manager took me aside and suggested I would be more effective over the long haul if I quit acting like a machine and started acting like a human who cared about people at least as much as he cared about results. He suggested that I was leaving, money, performance and the growth of people on the table, and he challenged me to think long and hard about the type of leader I wanted to be.
I am grateful to this day for that leadership wake-up call.
Over the months following the “machine” comment, he regularly challenged me with a number of provocative questions that ultimately shifted my focus from results at all costs to results through supporting and developing others. How will you answer these questions?
3 Leadership Questions to Help You Cultivate Your Leadership Style:
1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?
I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes. However, I am fiercely proud of the great people who have developed on my watch and their many subsequent career and life successes. This question made me pivot in my thinking about my role.
2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?
I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances.
3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?
This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day?
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Feedback that drives introspection supports growth. The comment that I was acting like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of a style based on my answers to the questions above. Try spending some time thinking about the leadership style you want to cultivate, and then do it.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.