Flexing Your Leadership Style

Type: Article
Topics: Communications & Public Relations, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

June 01, 2022

By making key choices about how to communicate, leaders can improve the likelihood of being followed
Suzanne Peterson
Suzanne Peterson

All too often, even the most seasoned leaders hit a proverbial roadblock in their effectiveness despite their impressive expertise or acumen, experience or skill set. This is because at a certain point in a leader’s career, competence is assumed and, therefore, carries less weight.

Instead, peers, school board members, teams and even those closest to the leader focus their evaluation of leader effectiveness largely on how a leader communicates and influences others. Indeed, in my experience as an executive coach, the most common coaching challenge associated with leadership effectiveness on a day-to-day basis is a misalignment of leadership style to the situation.

Generally, when leaders struggle with their style, they are told they are intimidating, cold, serious, formal, direct or abrasive or that they are too nice, deferential, unconfident, boring, uninfluential, passive or soft.

Leaders are left scratching their heads about why they are perceived this way and what to do to change it. After all, we are who we are, right?

Yes, but this way of thinking is too simplistic. Personality is who we are on the inside, and it is largely immutable. However, personality does not determine leadership style. In my executive coaching work, my colleagues and I have found that leadership style is more behavioral in nature.

For instance, a superintendent could possess the personality trait of calmness/emotional stability. Although this sounds appealing (and it can be), the behaviors associated with calmness can have a downside at times. A calm leader may fail to display passion or engagement for ideas, lack dynamism or inspiration when speaking about the vision, or fail to provide a sense of urgency during a crisis. When combined, these behaviors characterize a less-influential style regardless of personality.

In other words, there is no such thing as a good or bad leadership style without context. However, if you don’t take time to be intentional about how you want to be perceived in every situation, your style might not fit. If you choose to behave too agreeably in a situation that calls for you to demonstrate respect and expertise, you might not gain support for your ideas.

Similarly, if you choose to lead with confidence and expertise in a situation that calls for you to be a strong listener and supporter, you may be shown the door.

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Suzanne Peterson

Associate professor

Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Ariz.

About the Author

She is the author of How to Develop Your Leadership Style.

Style in a Virtual World

Leaders need to assess how they appear to others in the virtual workplace.

Having too many personal items, a cluttered desk or a disheveled appearance on a computer screen may convey informality and warmth. It also may convey disorganization and a lack of polish. Using a virtual background or failing to appear on video may convey coldness and lack of relational connection. Such factors contribute to professionalism.

If you are trying to increase your influence when video conferencing, consider your background, your lighting, your camera angle, your voice clarity and your energy. If you are trying to show a more informal or relational side, consider dressing more casually and don’t worry if your dog pops on camera to say hello.