Defining and Adapting Your Leadership Style



Few things are more frustrating for talented professionals than hitting a ceiling in their careers because they lack the appropriate leadership style. A boss senses that something is missing in a person’s tool kit but can’t put a finger on exactly what it is or how the person can improve. The boss says something like “You’re lacking important intangibles” or “You need more gravitas” but fails to provide specific advice or tools for improving.

It is equally frustrating to watch people with mediocre technical skills move up the ladder quickly because they have an exceptional leadership style. Bosses defend such promotions by emphasizing the employees’ soft skills, calling them “poised,” “confident,” and “dynamic.”

The truth is that these things matter: A great leadership style can make people appear more competent than they truly are, and a poor style can drag down a superior skill set. So how can aspiring executives improve their leadership style?

First, it’s important to understand that style is distinct from personality. The latter is immutable; it’s who you are on the inside. Style is best described by what you do, how often, and when. More than 30 years ago, the sociolinguist Howard Giles and colleagues first identified a set of behaviors, or social markers, that we all use to express ourselves and by which we evaluate others. These markers are a language we learn in childhood, as we begin to see that people behave differently depending on whether they hold status or not. Older siblings may bark at you for the remote control, for example, but behave obsequiously to parents when they want to borrow the car. Social markers can be expressed through language, nonverbal communication (such as body language), or context setting (sitting at the head of the table, for instance). Your choice of markers determines how others view you.

Through our own academic research and a combined 30 years of proprietary research, including engagements with more than 12,000 leaders in our executive coaching practice, we have identified the markers most commonly used in the workplace to express status. Together, they make up leadership style.

Suzanne Peterson,
associate professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management, says many talented professionals get held back from leadership roles because of relatively intangible reasons. She argues aspiring managers can intentionally alter their everyday interactions in small ways to have a large influence on their professional reputation. She explains how to adopt markers of different leadership styles to be seen as both influential and likable. Peterson is a coauthor of the HBR article “How to Develop Your Leadership Style: Concrete Advice for a Squishy Challenge.”

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Source: Harvard Business Review

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