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Leadership can be defined in several ways as you discover when you meet and interview different business leaders (successful or otherwise). Although most leaders declare some amount of success from their style, it does not mean their style will apply to how you lead or will be successful leading the people in your Company. If you draw your style exclusively from a mentor (or someone you observe from a distance) you may be missing the personal connection to realize the style that best suits your strengths.

This section explores a variety of leadership styles, how those styles manifest themselves in terms of team structure, what are the pitfalls to pay attention to and perhaps most important, whether or not there are times when you need to change your leadership style to push the Company forward to a new plateau of success. One thing is constant, you do need to lead, feel comfortable making decisions and most importantly accept that you hold final responsibility for the result.

Goals of Leadership

History seems to show that we are a people meant to be led. In absence of influential leadership, little progress seems to be made on the core issues that face our lives. Effective leaders, looking to implement change as a drive towards future goals tend to develop enemies (also thought of as leaders) who need the status quo to remain in order for their leadership to be uncontested. Let's start by introducing some of the goals and effects of leadership -- which may seem obvious, but are actually hard to achieve in many situations.

  1. Leadership provides a direction for people to follow. This is an important but obvious goal of leadership. The corollary would imply that an absence of leadership results in some form of stagnation, which is not always the case. Absence of leadership tends to produce de facto leaders (sometimes hiding behind the word "initiative") who lead the masses towards the wrong goals for your business. They make their best attempt to decide what to do within the capabilities of their experience.

  2. Leadership brings focus to the goal of success. Everyone understands who they are following which helps funnel their energy into a single direction. Focus is a very important aspect of business success, the less energy (finances, people, time) spent on activities unrelated to the primary goals at hand, the greater the chance of achieving those goals on-time, on-budget and to specification.

  3. Leadership clarifies responsibility. A variation of "the buck stops here" perhaps. Leadership makes it known who is responsible for making critical decisions -- even more importantly, who is responsible for taking critical input towards making those decisions. There is nothing worse than someone having an important piece of information and not knowing who to tell it to - it often becomes known too late to influence the path that was started (without significant cost and loss of time).

  4. Leadership draws leadership out of others. The greatest of leaders need other leaders around them to be successful. In fact, great leaders want other leaders around them so they can unburden their short term leadership responsibilities to focus on the long term issues at hand. Although at various times most all leaders experience a need to do some micro-leadership (controlling everything), it's a tiring stage that does not scale for any length of time. Building a team of leaders around you is the best way to prepare for a fast growing and successful business venture.
  5. Leadership attracts association. People want to be associated with recognized leaders, be they people or market leaders. Who would not want to work on the iPad or Blackberry, who would not want to say they manage one of Google's exciting product lines. Being associated with an effective leader tends to empower you to act like a leader (so long as you are leading people down the same path).

Leadership does not necessarily equate to success. It does however often identify the finish line more quickly than a business run without leadership. Of course that finish line might be bankruptcy, but it is a finish line none-the-less.

The primary goal you should seek in being an effective leader is to make sure the team rallies efficiently around the business plan. Being an effective leader sets you up for a greater chance at success but does still depend on many factors, the least of which are that your business plan has a chance for success and the team around you is capable of executing it. There are plenty of great leaders who lead people into failure, I'm sure you can think of a few.

Leading By Example

Leaders can lead by example, which tends to draw extreme loyalty from the people around you. People see how you approach getting things done and want to follow in some way. It becomes habit forming. Leading by example is not an easy style of leadership as you may genuinely be unable to personally do much of what you say given a lack of recent practice.

This style of leadership requires a great deal of consistency so that your followers do not become critical if your example changes frequently. A simple example might be how prepared you are for meetings -- if you are only prepared some of the time, people assume it is not that important to be prepared nearly all the time. You want the habit of preparation to stick, so you need to be as prepared as anyone to demonstrate this is the right way for your business to operate..

One huge thing to watch for is setting double standards. What works for you should work for the team and vice versa. Although many people would grant the CEO (or operational leader) some breaks if they fall off the consistency bandwagon, you should not take advantage of this too often. You might be busy doing many things to manage the business that the team does not have visibility over, but they should not get in the way of your ability to consistently lead by example. Similarly, watching out for double standards within the team itself -- perhaps one developer is being treated differently than everyone else when it comes to quality standards, hard to motivate others to care as much when they see this type of double standard.

A need to lead by example can also be an indication of a negative in that the team does not have sufficient experience to understand how to get things done without this type of visible (subliminal) direction. You may need to decide what kind of team you have built -- if experience is supposed to be there and you find you have to show the way too much, something is wrong. Perhaps communication is an area to explore -- the team may not really know what needs to get done despite their experience.

Leading by example can also fall short if the team does not always know how to digest the example. Sometimes you need to supplement your leadership style with different forms of communication so that people get the message you intend to give. You can circulate operational policies and guidelines, follow up with email summaries of how things got done, etc. Confirming that people get the message is a good habit to follow.

Leading by example is probably the best way to behave when first assuming a leadership role. It helps people understand you better (especially your strengths), what your values are and what you expect of them. Trying to convey these things through speeches and presentations does not have the same level of effect as conveying them by action.

Leading by Decree

Leaders can lead by decree, which can work when the team responds well to directives and commands. Sometimes this style of leadership is needed to move something headed in the wrong direction towards the right direction - at least at the beginning. When time is not working in your favor, just telling someone what to do is an appropriate approach. It does require an proper style of communication so as not to offend people (which is one of the fastest ways to turn people away from you as a leader).

There are a variety of crucial negatives to understand with this style of leadership, the most subtle one is that people wait to be told what to do. If nothing comes their way, they tend to idle instead, which is very unproductive. Additionally, the team relies on completeness of the decree so if it has any gaps, they often get missed. In a style that encourages initiative (leadership by decree does not often encourage initiative), gaps often get picked up by someone working adjacent to the gap. What happens when you take a vacation?

Accountability for the result falls almost exclusively to someone leading by decree. Given with this style of leadership everyone is only doing what they were told (and perhaps even how to get it done), they are effectively absolved of any wrong doing if something is done incorrectly. Not that a good leader should deflect blame in any case, but the task at hand is clearly being done at the express direction of someone leading by decree.

This style, if the permanent style used to manage a business, tends to attract a team without initiative, without a drive to innovate or in some cases even a drive to succeed. They show up to work each day waiting to be told what to do. There is no personal growth being offered, which is a key characteristic of company loyalty.

All styles have their positives, leading by decree offers a direct way to get something urgently done. Leaders who favor this style as a habit, tend to lack confidence in their team, or need so much control, they see no other way to feel good that the right things are getting done. They may cause things to get done, but position themselves as a dependency to success in a way that is hard to rely on for the long haul..

Leading by Consensus

Leaders can lead by consensus, which is said to motivate people with a sense of empowerment. When the direction to head in is more or less obvious, consensus-driven decision making tends to be workable. When direction is less obvious, a consensus-driven approach to leadership can be cumbersome, especially if you rely on the experience of the group to come up with the right approach. It's easy for the group to get stuck on making a decision or making the wrong one given levels of experience.

What about an impasse -- when the group can't resolve the conflict to make a decision? At this stage, strong leadership needs to step in to make the decision. This approach where consensus is used to deliver a sense of empowerment backed up with strong leadership to break an impasse works well. The team feels like it can function as equals with senior management but can rely on senior management to address crucial roadblocks.

One of the bigger challenges is when a business leader wants to override a decision made by the group. The consensus was to head in this direction for all the reasons argued but a business leader says otherwise. It's a huge leap of faith to implement this override as some of the participants may genuinely feel the wrong decision is being made. In these situations you need to have established your personal credibility for people to believe in you as their leader and accept an override. If you override too many times the sense of empowerment fades away in exchange for a sense that leadership is being implemented by decree.

You can influence the implementation of consensus decision making based on how you participate. Some general rules of thumb include:

Consensus means establishing general agreement in a decision or recommendation. It does not mean a majority vote on an issue, although this is sometimes how a consensus-based decision is made. You often need some form of consensus-based leadership to work for you or its hard to give people a sense that they are sharing in how the core issues of the day are managed. You don't want your leadership team to feel they are not needed.

Leading by a Combination of Techniques

Leaders can lead by a combination of techniques, which can work well depending on how the team is structured and whether they can digest a possibly inconsistent interpretation of your leadership style. You can lead with many styles, they all can work if you understand how your style of leadership defines the type of team you need around you and how each style effects each team member.

It's often the case that different people need to be managed by different styles which is a challenging technique to master, but one that can be of maximum effectiveness when striving for business success. One manager may need more coaching due to levels of experience so leading by decree might work best at the start. Later on, they want some independence to prove they can lead on their own, so you have to change how you lead them to accommodate their growth. Another manager may have a great deal of experience and are not looking for assistance, leading by example is good enough as they want to be associated with you to empower them in the eyes of the people they manage.

You likely have to choose an overall style for the team at large, but customizing your style for individual people and specific situations is a sign of versatility not often found in business leaders. This is the preferred style of leadership.

The Need to Be Seen as a Leader

One thing is constant, you do need to lead, feel comfortable making decisions and most importantly accept that you hold final responsibility for the result. Leadership is an overall quality all CEO's need to have and be recognized for. The business, investors, employees, customers and partners all want to know they are aligned with someone who can walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk of success.

If you are unsure of your capabilities to be a leader, you can engage a private coach, mentor or advisor to spend frequent time with you. They can review business situations with you and coach you on your leadership style. If needed, they can even attend various business meetings to see how you are doing and provide suitable guidance. Sometimes its hard to engage this kind of assistance as it requires that you first acknowledge you need the help. Take it if you need it, you will be a better leader which will in turn positively affect your chances for success in whatever you choose to do.

Advertisement coming up -- you can also use the InsideSpin Forums to ask questions of the community to help develop approaches to your leadership style. The InsideSpin founder is also available to provide coaching services.

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