Flexible Leaders Embrace and Employ Many Leadership Styles

It’s almost time for baseball again, and so I’ve been thinking about the very best pitchers in the game.

In order to sustain their success on the mound, they all seem to have a complete arsenal of pitches – fastball, curveball, slider, change-up, and maybe a knuckleball. But, just as importantly, they know which pitch to throw when, and can deliver each pitch for a strike at almost any time.

The same deft mastery is required of CEOs when it comes to leadership styles. To build great companies and drive growth year after year, they have to embrace and deploy a host of different leadership approaches, strategies and tactics – depending on the specific situation.

You can’t get meaningful business results in today’s relentlessly competitive global marketplace with just one CEO leadership style, any more than a Major League pitcher can expect to win 20 games with only one pitch. And, if you’re at the top of an organization right now, you can’t default in times of high stress to your favorite or most comfortable leadership approach.

It simply won’t work - because in the end, results matter most.

No, t The most accomplished CEOs flow effortlessly from one leadership style into another, and they seamlessly blend a half dozen leadership approaches within the same organization at any given time.

To pull off this sophisticated and nuanced juggling act, CEOs must listen hard to their customers, managers and employees; truly understand the fiber and fabric of their company’s culture; carefully assess what’s possible – and necessary – in terms of top- and bottom-line results; and operate each and every day with a huge amount of intuitive emotional capacity.

A key part of this emotional capacity means accepting the fact that different employees and business units may require, and respond to, different leadership styles. Based on my experience over the years, CEOs who can effectively adjust to this reality have a far greater opportunity for achieving excellence in their organizations.

There are a wide variety of CEO leadership styles to choose from; but I believe four distinct models are worth internalizing and utilizing:

·      The Clarifying Leader – This CEO attains his or her desired ends by being direct and providing clarity. Distinct roles and responsibilities, precise goal setting, and clear organizational arrangements are all very well established in this model, which attempts to leave little – or nothing – to chance.

·      The Communicating Leader – This CEO works within the organization’s structure to build strong and sustainable relationships. He or she seeks and provides feedback, engages in regular two-way communication, and works diligently to remove roadblocks. There’s also high trust when subordinates make decisions.

·      The Inspiring Leader – This CEO helps others get excited about the organization’s vision and future. He or she is also able to get employees and managers jazzed about their roles in the company, while inspiring them about what lies ahead. In addition, positive thinking, team development, and celebration of success – as well as increased cohesion and trust – characterize this model.

·      The Inclusive Leader – This CEO openly discusses matters with stakeholders before deciding on a course of action. The objective is to strive for, and achieve, mutually agreed upon results. And the focus is on win-win solutions, a desire for harmony within teams, and lots of ongoing collaboration at all levels of the organization.

There are no hard and fast rules about when to use each of these specific leadership styles.

But, generally speaking, when CEOs are trying to lead the business on a day-to-day basis, they need to clarify and communicate. If there’s a crisis, there also needs to be a profound emphasis on clarifying and communicating.

If, on the other hand, the CEO is attempting to manage a significant transformation, then he or she must turn to, and rely upon, inspiration and inclusiveness.

And, when an organization is trying to build, nurture and grow an under-skilled or under-experienced team with lots of untapped potential, CEOs must clarify, communicate, inspire and include.

Some of the case studies here are fascinating.

One company, for example, was competing on price in a shifting market and barely squeezing out quarterly profits. To bolster the bottom line, the CEO went out and formed an alliance with a design firm. But he had to sell this concept hard to his top 30 executives, who resisted the notion. Convincing the skeptical executives required clarification and communication, and the CEO eventually prevailed by explaining why the deal made everyday sense. There was very little inspiration articulated, because this was a single sharp-edged business necessity, not a gauzy corporate vision.

Now consider the B2B company that decided to completely re-make and re-structure itself to take advantage of new B2C markets that were emerging on the visible horizon. The CEO brought all the executives in the organization together in an inclusive fashion, and then he inspired them to journey forward to a more exciting and prosperous future.

Just like in baseball, it’s clearly impossible to win every game in business. But, as both of these stories show, a company’s prospects for improved performance and, ultimately, victory increase immeasurably if the CEO knows which leadership style makes the most sense in a given situation.

Leadership - Lost and Found

President Obama has been chided – and even derided – for his lack of leadership over the past year. Indeed, the man who was elected on fervent hope and sweeping change in the midst of the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, was being compared to hapless Jimmy Carter, rather than the soothing Franklin Roosevelt. And, at one point, things got so bad that the disrespected and discredited President couldn’t even get his calls returned by the Republican Speaker of the House.

Somehow, though, Obama seems to be reclaiming the powerful mantle of leadership that propelled him into the White House in 2008. Part of this resurgent leadership may have to do with the President’s newly combative – some would say partisan – rhetoric, designed to combat the Republicans in the run-up to the 2012 elections. But part of the comeback may also have to do with the fact that Obama – whether you support him or not – just seems more like a leader again.

The President’s lost-and-found leadership is extremely instructive for CEO’s in companies of all sizes, and in industries across the board. To be sure, if you run an organization, you know that, despite your very best efforts, your leadership somehow manages to ebb and flow as the quarters and fiscal years unfold. Sometimes, for example, you hear your inner leadership voice speaking loudly and clearly; and other times, for some inexplicable reason, it’s muted – or silent.

It’s unclear what causes this shifting dynamic; but it’s often subtle, and frequently takes place without a CEO’s full awareness. What’s clear, however, as the Obama case study shows, is that fading – or oscillating – leadership at the top has serious and concrete consequences for an organization and its people (as well as for a nation); and it’s usually only after the fall-off in leadership is felt in the organizational (or national) culture that the CEO – or President – snaps back and demonstrates conscious and concerted leader-like behavior in order to re-assert much-needed strategic direction and vision.

After working with hundreds of CEO’s (but never a President), I’ve come to empathize with the people at the top, whose role is beset with many huge pressures 24x7. It’s hard to lead – especially in unrelentingly complex, challenging and cacophonous times such as these. So, given the deafening din of the global world in which we live, it’s not surprising that CEO’s (or, once again, Presidents) sometimes have trouble hearing the inner call of leadership.

Still, missing crucial leadership moments – and failing to build communities of trust – because of noise and stress can be costly for companies (and countries).

But, from my perspective, it doesn’t have to play out this way. I believe that, with the proper amount of self-awareness in the mix, so much of leadership is actually within a leader’s control.

So, having said that, here are five negative behaviors that generally indicate a pull-back in CEO (or Presidential) leadership. Recognizing these negative patterns early can help prevent inconsistent and damaging lost-and-found leadership, and spare the organization (or nation) a lot of pain.

·      Sweating the Details – Execution is essential, particularly in an uncertain economy; but many CEO’s, feeling the strain of today’s complicated global marketplace, unknowingly shrink back from leadership, roll up their sleeves, and dive in to boost their companies’ fortunes. This default behavior is counter-productive, because it deprives the organization of senior vision and direction, and because it disenfranchises and displaces executives and managers. CEO’s must empower and enable excellence and engagement.

·      Projecting the Pressure – CEO’s must endure long periods of loneliness. That’s a fact, and it comes with the territory. But sometimes you can just see that a CEO isn’t enjoying his or her job. It’s written all over their faces. Whenever this happens, people in the organization lose strength and confidence, and their commitment fades. That’s why CEO’s must show (outwardly, at least) their enthusiasm for the job – and mission. Just as importantly, they must be constantly aware that lapsed leadership can harshly infect their workforce; passionate leadership, on the other hand, can be an infectious catalyst.

·      Losing Perspective – The key for CEO’s is to show their people the visible horizon, which is a metaphor that highlights the intersection between the journey a company has undertaken and what is possible for it to achieve. But it’s not enough to simply envision the visible horizon; CEO’s must tirelessly keep this vision – and reality – in front of their workforces. This helps people gauge where they are versus where they need to go. Unfortunately, a number of CEO’s get distracted by the business complexities in front of them, and fail to consistently communicate the imperative future.

·      Relying on Intelligence – Every CEO is smart. They have to be in order to make it to the top. Yet intelligence, IQ, and intellect are not enough, and they are over played when it comes to succeeding as an organizational leader. What’s also needed – and too often lacking in CEO’s – is emotional capacity. Understanding businesses, industries, markets, operations and organizational structures is basic table stakes. But when a CEO keeps substituting brains for heart, a company’s culture and alignment with its strategy suffers. There’s an old cliché I like: emote and motivate.

·      Ignoring the Gaps – CEO’s are, more often than not, well-rounded executives. But they still have gaps, and they fail as leaders when they refuse or fail to recognize their shortcomings and find talented people to counterbalance these soft or weak points. The leadership problem is compounded when the CEO is unable – or unwilling – to mold and meld the top team into a collaborative and collective unit that makes its positive presence felt up, down and far across an organization. The bottom line here is that if you don’t see lateral alignment at the top, you’re not seeing CEO leadership. And the result is almost always unfulfilled organizational potential.

Leadership is unbelievably valuable and unbelievably elusive today. But, in my view, it can be taught, acquired, managed – and controlled. And, with the right mindfulness and motivation, almost any CEO (or President) can become a steady leader who helps employees and citizens thrive – in spite of a tumultuous economic or business environment.

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Damaging Consequences From a Lack of Leadership

We need to double down on collective leadership in both the public and private sectors. It’s the only way to make things work in what many would call our broken society – a society in which people (whether they’re employees or voters) desperately yearn for competence at the top.

There have been two big stories hugging the headlines in recent weeks – the sad and untimely death of Steve Jobs, Apple’s soulful CEO; and the persistent occupation of Wall Street and other locales by armies of protesters.

On the surface, neither story appears to have much in common with each other.

But, from my perspective, they definitely intersect and overlap.

Indeed, they’re both about much-needed inspirational and navigational leadership – or the lack of it.

Those sitting in on Wall Street seem to be demanding greater economic justice from the public and private sectors. Yet, in my opinion, the real reason these legions are camped out 24 x 7 is because our leaders in business, banking and government have failed to grapple with large, complicated and seemingly intractable problems that have a bearing on each and every one of us.

Confronting the Challenge of Change

It’s this abdication of responsibility – this inability or unwillingness to confront the challenge of change – that makes the occupation of Wall Street such an authentic protest, one that rings true for nearly 50 percent of all Americans, according to the latest polls.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, never shrank back from problems that were thought to be insurmountable, nor did he choke on change. In fact, he reveled in big, sweeping technological transformation, and that’s why his leadership brand keeps growing in stature and reputation – especially in the weeks following his death.

In my view, Jobs’ posthumous stature and respect is instructive for leaders of organizations and institutions that are trying to find a positive and constructive growth map in today’s unremittingly uncertain economy.

First, Jobs was self-assured – and even brave – when he offered audacious solutions to long-festering technology problems. He put his digital vision out there and refused to back down. Too many leaders today seem hesitant to tell employees, shareholders, or voters how to genuinely fix what we all know is in disrepair. And this lack of leadership is one of the reasons why everything feels frozen right now; true leaders must have the confidence to present – and act upon – the truth.

Transformation Over Tweaks

Second, there were no half measures for Jobs. He knew what was necessary, and he never nibbled around the edges. He simply didn’t believe in tweaks. The iPod, iPhone and iPad – each of these recent innovations represented systemic breakthroughs, not incremental improvements. And this type of wholesale and uncompromising change seems to be exactly what people are looking for in other walks of life today, whether it’s radical reform of health care, or throwing out the current tax code and starting over from scratch.

Third, even though he had a reputation for being temperamental or difficult at times, Jobs was always able to keep his colleagues deeply connected and committed to Apple’s higher purpose. Inside his company, he galvanized through the use of collective leadership and power. Yes, it’s true he was obsessed with details and demanded perfection; but he also stirred tremendous passion in the hearts and minds of those who worked for him by sharing every step of the technological journey.

Broad Empowerment

Broad empowerment like this is so important in organizations now, because the generation that’s entering the workforce often feels a lack of purpose on the job. Broad empowerment is also what people are seeking in the political system, and that’s one of the reasons why the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have claimed such widespread legitimacy and participation.

Despite the resounding calls and demonstrated demand for leadership in America today, some of our best and brightest leaders just aren’t leading.


The All-Important Convergence

Based on my experience in the private sector, I believe that too many c-level executives have achieved success by focusing intently on operational results, rather than the all-important convergence of leadership, culture and strategy.

I think that c-level executives can – and must – expand their portfolios by zeroing-in on both of these aspects of their job. And, if they don’t, they are short-changing their employees, shareholders – and a whole gamut of influential stakeholders who are looking for substantive and value-enhancing leadership today.

To be fair, many of the c-level executives I know and work with are just too humble. So humble, in fact, that they fail to realize and appreciate their own potential impact on an organization and its people. But the key is to remember that collective leadership and power is the absolute antithesis of self-aggrandizement. It channels everyone’s best thinking and best efforts into a constructive and collaborative whole.

An Implicit Responsibility to Lead

That said, leadership must radiate from the very top levels of an organization and permeate and penetrate every nook and cranny of the enterprise. This is meaningful collective leadership, and the decisions that are made – or not made – touch, affect and impact everyone, regardless of where they sit.

This is another area that Steve Jobs got right. And his collective leadership style, which involved, engaged and motivated so many Apple executives and employees, helped increase his company’s shareholder equity by nearly 600 percent between 2007 and 2011, a period punctuated by one of the greatest financial meltdowns we’ve ever seen in this country.

Leading collective transformations like this, collectively integrating culture and strategy, is the implicit responsibility of CEOs and their c-level teams. When you perch at the pinnacle, you have a unique vantage point, and you can see the entire company or community clearly – and that includes all the problems, solutions, challenges and opportunities, as well as the players who can make a difference.

Taking another page from the book of Jobs, if you followed Apple over the years, you saw a technology visionary at work, but you also saw a very hands-on manager who refused to keep an arm’s length distance from his people, his products, or those who craved and purchased his innovations. If you’re not that up close and personally entwined in your business, you simply can’t transform your company, your industry, or a handful of industries (technology, animation, music, and telecommunications) like Jobs.

Coping With Unprecedented Complexity

Is this collective melding of leadership, culture and strategy difficult? Yes, without question. And, I offer c-level executives my profound empathy as they try to confront – and master – one of the most complex business environments imaginable today.

But here’s the truth: very few senior leaders can deal easily with this degree of unprecedented commercial intricacy. It takes unparalleled courage and experience. Still, every executive must deal with it. There’s no choice, no excuse, and no outs or off-loading.

So, deep understanding and super-refined emotional capacity have to be channeled in order to successfully integrate and link leadership, culture and strategy. This is the only way to cope with mind-numbing complexity. And it’s the only way to make things work in what many would call our broken society – a society in which people (whether they’re employees or voters) desperately yearn for competence at the top.

The bottom line, then, is that we need to double down on collective leadership in both the public and private sectors. If we can’t get our leaders to step up, guide us, and collaborate with us, we’re going to continue to bump along a rutted road. Personally, I’d like to travel down a smoother path to prosperity. And I don’t think I’m alone in that preference.

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