Style matters - just not the way we think about it

"Your actions speak so loudly; I can't hear what you're saying" - Trevino et. al.

I remember my first outright leadership role. My boss at the time took me aside to give me some advice. The short version of which was, "wear a suit!" Not all advice on leadership is so direct, or focused on what we wear, yet most of it follows a similar pattern. How you show up matters to how you are perceived. Our choices as individuals and leaders are important, from our dress, haircut, or even the zoom background we choose to how we're perceived. As expressed through minor and not-so-small characteristics, our style plays an essential role in how the rest of the world perceives us. When you become a leader, whether as a captain of a sports team, a manager of a small project team at work, or a member of a community group, you are told, expressly or implicitly, that your leadership style matters. There is a vast library on this subject. If you look at the personality tests that are often applied when recruiting for leadership roles- the Hogan, Myers-Briggs, and VIA Characters Strengths Survey- You'll realise that we're obsessed with how people show up as individuals leaders.


Unfortunately, this preoccupation with how leaders' present themselves' is no more useful than the recommendation to "wear a suit." What factors do you consider while deciding on a leadership style? Despite all the data on leadership and leadership styles, I still believe that we regard leadership styles like clothing. Walking into a clothing store (remember when we used to do that?) and looking at the many mannequins on exhibit is arguably the greatest analogy. Each one is a distinct style that you can experiment with or adopt. The issue is that not all styles are appropriate for you. You can pick a style at the store and never feel completely comfortable with it. We all have this experience. For me, it was my blazer phase. I was certain this was the correct style, with casual yet formal coats that made me appear more mature and sophisticated. Despite this, I never felt at ease in a blazer, no matter how hard I tried. I'd choose an all-weather sports jacket, which felt more like me if I had a choice.

We have a habit of treating leadership styles as outfits to try on. Unfortunately, when we regard leadership styles, we diminish their value and ask leaders to operate like chameleons, changing to suit the circumstances. We need ordinary leaders to take responsibility for significant challenges in today's world. We need them to be at ease with their style to focus on their problems rather than worrying about how they act. In other words, we want people to be focused on the people around them and the meeting they're in, not on how comfortable their blazer is.

It's time to focus on our leaders' music, not what they wear.

To accomplish this, we must alter our perceptions of leadership styles. Moving from an external perspective of leadership styles towards an internal view, leaders develop their style through an awareness of themselves and their capabilities. In other words, we need to change our perception of what a leadership style is, from an external outfit to an internal skill set. We need to focus on the music leaders make, not what they wear. If we consider leadership styles in the context of playing music - any genre, but jazz is my personal favourite - we can develop an internal frame of reference for the style a leader adopts. Playing music is made up of three things: who you are (your personality, beliefs, and identity), your talent in playing the instrument (which you can practise to extend your range), and the external environment (the audience, your colleagues, etc.).

Your personality is the heart and soul of what you perform as a musician or a leader. Who you are as a person influences what you play and how you interpret music. Leadership is similar in that it is fundamentally about you as a person, your views, and your values. These are fundamental characteristics that are difficult to modify and shape your personality. It's pointless to emulate a leadership style that doesn't fit your personality. As a musician, you may be more imaginative or more controlled, which will show in your performance. You may believe in accurately following the composer's music, or you may regard music as only instructions from which you can express yourself. Understanding who you are and what you stand for is crucial in developing your style, which is the foundation of how you will present yourself.

Your technical competence in playing your instrument determines how you convey your style to the public as a musician. How do you create music? This is something you can work on by practising, learning new instruments, expanding your repertoire and range, and improving. But you'll never stop learning, and there will always be things you can't do or do better than others. The leadership styles discussed by the writers are similar to the instruments used by musicians. It's how you project your personality into the world as a leader. You can focus on expanding your skillset to accomplish this, but you will never be a master of it all. What you choose to practice will fit your personality and help you stretch your skills. Despite this, gaps and blind spots will exist. For example, as a leader, you can improve your coaching skills, but you may never be an exceptional coach. You can enhance your directive leadership skills, but you may never feel comfortable issuing directive orders. The good news is that this does not imply that you are a bad leader. Simply it defines the scope in which you can flex your leadership style.

Finally, the audience has an impact on leadership style. Leaders receive energy from their audiences in the same way as musicians do. As a leader, it is your responsibility to recognise and respond to your team's requirements. It will sometimes be simple, and other times it will put your talents to the test as you try to engage them in ways you haven't tried before. Your leadership style is how you present yourself to the world, and it must adapt to your audience. It wouldn't be appropriate to attend a rock performance or a jazz session in a tuxedo, would it? You wouldn't play classical music in jeans and a t-shirt, either. Understanding your audience's needs is critical for adapting how you choose to show up as a leader.


Its time to rethink how you construct your leadership style

We need to get away from "off-the-shelf" leadership styles. It is up to a leader to choose their styles. Leaders construct their style from these three elements - personality, technical competence, and the audience. These elements constrain how you, as a leader, will show up, but they also unlock your potential by focusing on what you are good at and not on what you think you should be. Understanding who you are as a leader, what you are comfortable with, including the skills you have and don't have, and who you are talking to, is critical to making good style choices. In short, as a leader, you need to choose when to wear a blazer based on your personal beliefs (how you want to show up), your comfort with it, and who your audience is. These three factors will determine when it's okay to wear a blazer and when it's okay to wear that dirty climbing jacket.