In my work with the U.S. Army, a common phrase you hear amongst drill sergeants is, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink”. Meaning, you can provide an individual with tools that will make them more successful, but you have no control over whether they use them. Another common phrase I am sure most of you have heard comes from parents, where they state, “if he/she were to jump off a bridge, would you jump to?”
Whether you can relate to either of the two adages or not, both draw our attention to leadership. Leadership is defined as “the process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northhouse, 2001, p. 3). The main responsibilities of a leader are to create a shared vision for the group, motivate and join them in the pursuit of that vision, generate optimism and trust and achieve results. Being a leader can be a difficult job, but when done effectively, can have a tremendous impact on productivity and success.
Common Themes in Leadership
One common misconception of leadership is that there is one specific set of traits or a particular personality profile that is better than the others. No two leaders are the same. While there may be some overlap in certain characteristics, the way they lead, the things they say and the values they pull from, their leadership role vary from person to person. Another misconception of leadership is that its effectiveness solely relies on the leader’s personal traits. Effective leadership consists of four major themes: personal traits, leadership style, followers’ traits and situational factors. The first theme is personal traits, where many successful leaders share common characteristics. These include things like integrity, confidence, accountability and preparedness. While there is no one size fits all answer, the qualities you possess play a role in how you lead.
The second theme is leadership styles, which are typically displayed when it comes to decision-making. There are five types of leadership styles: Autocratic, Autocratic-Consultative, Consultative-Individual, Consultative-Group and Group. Autocratic refers to solving the problem yourself using available information, Autocratic-Consultative refers to gathering information from relevant individuals before making a decision, Consultative-Individual refers to discussing the problem with each individual and then making a decision, Consultative-Group refers to discussing the issue with the group and then making a decision and Group refers to sharing the issue with the group and coming to a joint decision. Everyone will have their preferred style, each has their benefits, but there are varying factors where a certain type of leadership style may be more effective.
The third theme is the situational factors involved. This refers to variables like the environment you are in, the size of the group, how much time you have available if you are new to the group, what type of leadership has there been in the past and what resources you have available to you, etc. While you may have a particular way to act as a leader, being aware of the situational factors is key because adjusting or altering the way you lead to those situations can increase your effectiveness.
Finally, the fourth theme is the traits of the individuals you are leading. This can refer to the individuals’ experience level, their ability, personality, maturity and even their nationality. Earlier I mentioned that no two leaders are alike, well the same goes for the members of your team in that no two individuals are alike. While individual A might not mind getting yelled at to increase motivation, individual B might take getting yelled at personal, therefore decreasing motivation and productivity. An important aspect of a leader is catering to each individual. This may take time, but you must discover what makes each individual tick to be an effective leader.
Learning to Lead
While coaching high school basketball, I have come across many different individuals, thereby constantly testing my ability to lead. Each year, I would be in charge of 15 individuals. Rarely did I have individuals for consecutive seasons, so from the out, my move as a coach was to discover how to lead each team member effectively. There were years where I would have to walk individuals through everything step by step, and then there were the ones where I could walk them through it one time, and they were good. There were years where I would have to raise my voice to get through to someone, and there were times where I had to use a softer tone to get through. This was always a big test because, with high school sports, there is a lot to cover in a short amount of time-related to performing at a high level (i.e., plays, fundamentals, strategies). My first year as a head coach, I focused most of my attention on making sure everybody understood the fundamentals of the game; however, we were not very successful. Guys had difficulty maintaining focus and motivation and had a hard time listening and processing information, but I never thought about adjusting my leadership style.
After reflecting in the offseason, my goal for my second year was to focus more on the leadership aspect first and then implement a more fundamental focus. While most of the team was made of new players, four of them were from the previous year. Record wise, we were more successful than the season before, but we still finished below .500. Disappointing? Yes, but where I found joy and felt we were successful was because of the feedback I received from the players. The new players felt I cared for them, helped them improve as individuals and felt they were successful throughout this season. The returning players, while they didn't like losing, felt completely different from the previous year. They felt more engaged, more involved, they felt they improved and appreciated how I interacted with them throughout the season. How I ran the team, the way I ran practices, how I communicated with them throughout the year helped them feel better than the previous year. By adjusting my leadership style, I was able to break through to a group of individuals and help them feel successful and productive despite not always achieving the desired outcomes. How you lead can have an astounding impact on those around you. You must be willing to adjust and adapt while maintaining who you are and what you believe in.
How to Improve Your Leadership Ability
The first way to improve your leadership effectiveness is to reflect on your past experiences dealing with different leaders. Think of a time where you had a terrible boss, manager, or leader. You can answer the same question: What did they do that you disliked? How did they make you feel? Or finish the statement, “I do not like it when leaders…” You can use these questions to pick out behaviors or traits that you felt were ineffective that you would not want to incorporate into your philosophy as a leader. Now, think of a time when you had a great boss, manager, or leader and answer these questions: What did they do that you liked? How did they make you feel? Or finish the statement, “I like it when leaders…” You can use these questions to pick out behaviors or traits that you felt were effective enough to incorporate into your philosophy as a leader. You cannot learn everything from a book; sometimes, you need to see it in action to truly understand its effectiveness.
Another way to increase your effectiveness as a leader is to identify your values. Leading from a place of values helps drive action and leads to a display of consistent action that promotes optimal performance over time. One way to identify your values is to think about a big decision you have made within the last two years. It could be a decision to move your family cross country, starting a new job or making a pivot in your business. For me, it was the decision to accept employment 2,500 miles away during a pandemic. Once you identify this decision, the next step is in 7 words or less, answer the question “Why was this a big decision”? I answered this question by saying, “To take charge of my own life”. Finally, choose one word to describe your answer to the previous question. I said accountability; I have always leaned on others, avoided tough decisions and took the easy route. Moving across the country for new employment helped me feel like I was taking accountability of my life. I did not know anyone in my new town, could not rely on anyone else, it was me and that was it. This one word is a core value of yours because it was a key factor in an important life decision. Identifying your core values help develop consistency in your actions and decisions, help develop clearer expectations for yourself and your organization, and allow you to behave your more authentic self in the process.
Finally, you want to take inventory of the team you have around you. Not in terms of “is this person the right fit for my team”, but getting to know them, who they are, and what their core values are. You can take the previous activities about identifying past leaders, what you liked or disliked about them, and identifying core values and use them as conversation pieces with your team members. To be an effective leader, it is not just about you. No two people are alike, and as a leader, you may not be able to lead two people the same way. Yelling at someone may motivate one person, but it may make another more defensive. By balancing your core values and who you want to be as a leader with the qualities of those you lead, you will become a more effective leader and the team performance will be more consistent.
How you choose to act, choose to communicate and understanding the team around is vital because effective leadership has a major impact on success. Are you the type of leader that individuals want to follow off the edge of a cliff? Or are you the type of leader that individuals do not take seriously? Effective leaders provide others with opportunities to lead; they have a contagious energy about them, communicate from the heart and lead from a place of values. They create this positive, enthusiastic, facilitative culture where individuals feel they are cared for, their work matters, and that they are appreciated. Discover the type of leader you are, learn from your experiences, and learn more about your team to increase your effectiveness as a leader and to increase productivity throughout your organization.
Northhouse, P.G. (2001). Leadership: Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
By: Joey Velez MA, MBA