The last decade has ushered in a new age of leadership. More than ever, employees are trying to develop their very own unique leadership style, one rooted in authenticity, trust, and open communication. Individuals at all levels of organizations are now looking for meaningful, motivating work experiences. Millennials, especially, want to be led, not managed. And many of them are stepping into new leadership roles for the first time, often without much preparation.
Most leadership development efforts fall flat when organizations try to impose a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all plan rising leaders need to follow when what they really need is a compass so they can chart their own path.
When organizations don’t invest in helping their High Potential employees (HiPos) discover an authentic leadership style that leverages their natural strengths, values, and internal resources, they risk top talent leaving. Or worse, High Potential individuals may hold back because they feel out of place, like an impostor, when they don’t fit the leadership mold.
By contrast, when you focus on what rising leaders are naturally good at, it brings out their best and gives them deeper motivation to succeed. This more personalized leadership development approach fosters intrinsic drive that translates into better business results and retention.
Here’s how your organization can take an active interest in rising leaders’ potential in a way that appreciates their unique qualities and helps bring them to the forefront so they can perform at their best.
Whole Person Leadership
Most traditional leadership development approaches miss key skills and behaviors leaders need to continuously learn, be flexible in the face of rapid change, sustain focus, and take care of themselves so that they can be there for others.
In her TED talk, leadership expert Roselinde Torres says that “most leadership development programs are based on success models for a world that was, not a world that is or that is coming.”
She points out that traditional leadership measures may actually stunt growth because they provide a limited, one-dimensional view of an individual’s ability to lead. This competency-based approach, she explains, is incomplete and insufficient for what’s required of 21st-century leadership in a fast-changing, competitive world.
There’s also no single leadership style that fits every individual. Every employee brings a rich, diverse set of experiences, values, and qualities to the table. So why shouldn’t these individual strengths be translated into a unique leadership style?
Leaders today must be adaptable to changing situations. Instead of forcing others to think as they do, they must foster collaboration, inclusivity, and diverse opinions in order to solve complex problems. Most importantly, they have to motivate through the creation of an inspiring, compelling vision of the future.
Whole Person leadership takes into account the psychological resources and behaviors that help great leaders excel, including agility, team-building, and coaching. When you contextualize and apply a person’s individual strengths, values, and qualities to the environment, you arrive at an authentic leadership style that not only brings out their best but also achieves results.
Here are four steps to help top performers identify a signature style that’s authentic to them as whole people and to create a plan to put it into action today.
Uncovering a Unique Leadership Style
1. Encourage self-awareness
Great leaders understand people, most importantly, themselves. They know and express their values.
Cultivating a leadership style requires a willingness to engage in deep, courageous self-reflection, perhaps with the assistance of a coach. This emotional intelligence helps leaders shape and control their reactions to events — and act more effectively in the process.
Help rising leaders get in touch with their strengths and personal values with questions like:
- What aspects of your work have you found most meaningful?
- When have you felt most inspired?
- In what types of situations do you easily get into the zone or psychological flow?
- How are you acting in accordance with your values?
- What helps you cope with setbacks?
Also, prompt them to take into consideration other leaders they look up to or aspire to be like. What is it that they admire about them? Encourage them to think about what aspects of their behavior they can model or “try on.”
These questions will help your rising leaders put into words the unique blend of distinctive qualities that will supercharge their impact, effectiveness, and productivity.
2. Emphasize the importance of feedback
As valuable as looking inward can be, self-reflection isn’t enough. Great leaders are proactive about getting outside perspectives and feedback in order to achieve results.
Encourage your company’s rising leaders to have open conversations with their teams. This will unearth opportunities for them to apply their unique skill set to influence and drive results. There’s also no better way to establish trust and rapport than nurturing relationships.
My advice for those involved in developing leaders is to have a “styles” conversation with their team members. In this conversation, their goal should be to understand each team member’s priorities (What are they working on? What are their goals?), motivations (What’s their “why”?), and even their preferred method of communication (frequency, format, etc.).
Successful leaders strive to leverage the capacity of others, so these conversations illuminate ways they can do so — whether by offering resources, introductions, or other instrumental support.
Effective leadership is adaptive and responsive to the context, so the business situation must be taken into account. For instance, a startup may need a leader who excels at taking risks and pivoting quickly, whereas a well-established corporation may be looking for a leader who can inspire and re-energize a team.
Give rising leaders the data they need to understand the organizational context so that they can match their leadership behaviors to what’s needed the most.
3. Write a manual that’s unique to the individual
The ability to articulate a compelling vision is critical to forward-thinking leadership. Rising leaders should have opportunities to practice and observe which elements of their narrative spark a light in those around them.
Combining insights gathered from their self-reflection and feedback from their team, leaders can create their own “user manual” to communicate their vision.
This practice is becoming increasingly popular among top CEOs because it’s a succinct way to capture and communicate a unique leadership style on a broad scale and invite others into the process.
Abby Falik, Founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, wrote in her manual:
“I’m a strong believer that leadership is a practice, not a position. My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge while putting it out to the world that I know I am — and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.”
Transparency in your working style not only encourages a sense of psychological safety but also shortens the learning curve, so you and your teammates can collaborate more effectively. Modeling candidness helps everyone embrace their human side at work, creating an inclusive environment where people can thrive.
4. Focus on strengths
Continue to nurture rising leaders in developing their style by encouraging them to be themselves every day. Focusing on areas where leaders can play up their unique superpowers.
Most great leaders aren’t good at everything, so work with them to identify the skills, competencies, and capabilities that are the most highly relevant to the job. As long as their weaknesses are not handicapping their performance or damaging morale, leaders are better off focusing energy on amplifying their strengths instead.
At the end of the day, leaders are human, too, so embrace that they will make mistakes. There will be bumps in the road. When this happens, emphasize the learning opportunity they have to grow from and reflect upon to figure out action steps for future challenges.
Self-reflection lies at the heart of creating a leadership style that’s not only effective but will also help rising leaders reach their potential. Prescriptive models are a place to start, but it’s essential to encourage leaders to seek feedback, build relationships, and continually iterate on their strengths as well.
Remember: outstanding leaders are seldom born that way. They learn these capabilities during their career. Focus on giving your rising leaders opportunities to shine, and your organization will always be a step ahead of the rest.