What Leadership Style is Best?
Long after I’d finished playing college football, I ran into one of my former coaches, who apologized out of the blue. He saw my puzzled reaction, and elaborated: “I've realized that I’d say the right things in Bible studies with you guys, or watch game film and calmly point out corrections to you or joke around with you guys at meals, but then I’d get out on the practice field and…” He trailed off.
I knew what he meant, though. Even all those years later, I could remember the yelling. His belittling. My cringing. It had been pretty tough at times. He continued: “It took me a long time to realize that I was trying to act like coaches that I’d been around who behaved like that. That’s what I thought it took to win...I’m sorry.”
I got it. Football is a copycat sport. What works for one team is immediately adopted by other teams and, if it continues to be successful, becomes widespread. So are other sports, and plenty of other industries as well. (It’s why the Oakland As became so successful with their “Moneyball” approach. As others copied each other and all “zigged,” they decided to “zag” and built it into a competitive advantage. But that’s another post for another time.)
As my coach noted, leadership can be that way as well. We look at wildly successful leaders —Mike Krzyzewski, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Jack Welsh, Steve Jobs, Bill Belichick, Phil Jackson, Warren Buffett — and borrow whatever traits we can glean.
There’s an upside to that — I’m a firm believer that leadership can be taught, that skills can be improved. We can continue to grow in ways that allow us to interact with our teams more effectively, develop more leaders around us, build healthy teams with positive relationships, mentor others and so on.
The problem? I’m just as firmly convinced that your most effective leadership style is...yours.
If I tried to be Coach K, those around me would laugh. They wouldn’t be inspired. They wouldn’t get more done. Nor am I the quiet, wise, consistent soothsayer that Warren Buffett seems to be. My ADHD makes that, well, unworkable. Note that this is a different question than the issue of situational leadership — differing approaches to leadership based on the situation — that was addressed in The Mentor Leader, a book by famed retired coach Tony Dungy and me.)
But for leadership style, we should stay true to our own core. Are there places for me to grow? Sure. I don’t like conflict. When I worked in two NFL front offices, there were times when I needed to take action and correct others’ mistakes. Early on I tried to finesse it, correct the mistake myself and not say a word. But I realized they weren’t learning and growing, and it wasn’t helping either of us. So I learned to take corrective action, have constructive conversations and move forward. In a way that worked for me.
Likewise, there were times I needed to be more patient, like Buffett. Figure out ways to stay the course even when outside voices made that challenging. (And ignore outside voices altogether, as pretty much the whole list above does.)
But as Tony Dungy told me after he won the Super Bowl, “I’m glad to have won it to show people there’s another way to lead.” He noted that there were plenty who led like him that he borrowed from — Chuck Noll and John Wooden are top of mind — but that his win gave a current example.
“But at the same time, it someone is really demonstrative, maybe they shouldn’t strive to be like me. It’s just that people can see that however they are...will work,” he also said.
He’s right. Your most effective style is to ultimately be yourself. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
It’s true for your leadership style, too.
Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.