Leadership. Ten letters that drive a ~$400 Billon “Development” Industry (Forbes). For this blog, I define leadership as an interpersonal influence directed toward achieving goals. There is no question that everyone has experienced radically different styles of leadership. How leaders communicate, realize contributions from team members, and ultimately achieve goals can be divergent and challenging.
The impression of leadership and its responsibilities have accompanied me from as far back as I can remember. Leadership grew prevalent during competitive childhood athletics. It didn’t matter the sport—hockey, baseball, football—leadership styles from my coach and team captains played a significant role from an impressionable age. Leadership recapitulated during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. As a successful Vector/Cutco sales rep, I was quickly promoted to management. And with management came meaningful leadership responsibilities. I was responsible for leading my peers and, in some cases, my elders with how-to sales strategies and messages of motivation. It was my job to make them better. Years of experiences—both success and failures—laid the foundation for professional growth to leadership positions in IT staff augmentation. Now, I am leading a mid-sized government contractor’s growth and growth enablement strategy.
Throughout my professional career, the type of leadership I experienced was varied. In most cases, it seemed situational based—it didn’t matter if it was from a peer, coach, or manager—few followed a predictable approach. It seemed like everyone defined leadership differently depending on time, team members, culture, and business situations. I soon recognized that consistent leadership and management traits are essential for a successful, thriving, and stable environment. This understanding allowed me to group leadership methods and styles into three distinct buckets. The three buckets are 1) Traditional. Also known as command and control, top-down, authoritative, and waterfall. 2) Servant. Also known as employee-based, innovative, persuasive, and heart-based. 3) Toxic. This method speaks for itself and, surprisingly, was far too common. Why? The simple answer is not everyone can and should be a leader. However, I’ve read a lot about this subject over the years. Can leaders learn? Yes, of course, they can. Can people be trained to be good positive role models and strong leaders? Also, a definitive yes. In the following, I’ll examine each method and provide some common characteristics and pros and cons.
Traditional Leadership. Traditional Leaders encourage companies, teams, and individuals by providing guidance, direction, and motivation. This drives everyone towards a common goal; improving the company’s market position. Additionally, traditionalists typically employ a top-down leadership approach. This is where goals, projects, and tasks are determined by the company’s senior leaders and, in some cases, independently of their team(s). Traditional Leadership is hierarchical by nature. Typically, teams, departments, or divisions are organized into management ranks, and each subordinate to the manager above. Although not as profound as the Roman Emperor, they do share similarities. One significant similarity is Earned Authority. Over time, this trait has also come to mean several things, including leading by example, someone having authority on a subject, or a demonstrated and proven ability. However, at its core, traditionalists often believe Earn Authority means they’ve earned the right to lead, and you will follow me. Meaning authority is earned, not bestowed.
The pros of Traditional Leadership include 1) Goals. Traditionalist typically creates goal alignment—expectation across the company is clear. 2) Decisions. Critical decisions are generally made by senior leaders using a standards/procedure-driven approach. 3) Command and Control. Schedules, output, and budgets are easily controlled across respective departments. Conversely, cons include 1) Employees may feel disconnected from the company’s mission and values. 2) Little to no involvement or input from staff can lead to poor decision-making and unhappy employees. 3) Does not encourage creativity, or diversity of thought, and employees are expected to follow direction.
Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is a philosophy conceptualized by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” Directly opposite to Traditional Leadership, where the boss is at the top of the hierarchy. Conversely, Servant Leadership’s notion places the leader at the bottom of the hierarchy and in a serving position. A servant-first leader puts people first. Today, Servant Leadership is a set of principles that enrich employees’ lives and helps build better organizations. Servant Leaders are empathic, have exceptional listening and persuasion skills, challenge others to grow and excel, and drive big picture thinking. Using this approach, employees’ needs are considered first. The Servant Leader will help employees build expertise and improve performance. Their organizational model is an inverted triangle where employees are at the top, and the senior leaders are on the bottom. The desired outcome includes maximized communication and collaboration and creating an agile and responsive team.
The ten principles of Servant Leadership are—
- Listening: Deep commitment to listen intently to others
- Empathy: Accepted and recognized for their unique self
- Healing: themselves and others
- Self-awareness: Commitment to foster general and self-awareness
- Persuasion: Seek to convince rather than coerce
- Conceptualization: Planning and encouraging others to achieve a vision
- Foresight: Understand lessons learned (retros)
- Stewardship: Hold company, team, employees in trust for the greater good
- Commitment to the growth of people: Committed to personal, professional, and spiritual growth of every individual in the company
- Building Community: Seek to identify a means for building a community within the company…cultivating lasting relationships (community) among your team(s)
Following the ten principles can create a cohesive and collaborative environment. However, applying these principles from a genuine position is the only way to achieve success. Employees will easily detect inauthentic Servant Leaders.
The pros of Servant Leadership include putting people ahead of power. They prioritize the company, team, individual’s growth, and well-being, letting their own needs and ambition come second. The cons include time. It takes time to build relationships. Understanding individuals needs and what motivates, and creating solutions that matter will not happen overnight
The book “The Servant” by James C. Hunter tells a wonderful story about Servant Leadership through protagonist John Daily’s eyes. This story helped put Servant Leadership in perspective for me. Servant leadership produces a set of behaviors that creates inclusivity and motivates an innovative culture.
Toxic Leadership. Toxic Leadership is the most ominous form of leadership. And, as previously mentioned, it is far too common. Their actions and politics are constantly threatening—to anyone with different ideas, thoughts, strategies. Toxic Leaders are inauspicious—if it’s not their idea, they sabotage. They will purposefully destroy, look for fault and take advantage to damage, or obstruct change or progress. Three characteristics that best define Toxic Leaders include Narcissism, Manipulation, and Competition. As Narcissists, they have extensive and, most times, complete admiration for themselves. They constantly try to outdo or one-up their perceived competition, even when their experience is outdated by 30 years. Toxic leaders are manipulative. They discriminate against all new ideas—and more specifically, the person with the ideas. If you’re not a yes wo/man, they’ll find a way to undermine you.
Lastly, Toxic Leaders are competitive. Their competitive drive is abnormal, unhealthy, and corrupt. They undermine competition at the department, team, and individuals and elate in teammates’ failures—especially if they had a hand in it. Constantly politicking for position, the Toxic Leader is always and only interested in one person—themselves.
There are no pros to discuss. Everything about Toxic Leadership is a con. We’ve all heard the adage “misery loves company.” Well, toxicity breeds toxicity. So, what should you do if you experience a Toxic Leader? You have two choices. 1) Develop a communication and risk mitigation plan specific to dealing with this individual. You’ll need a roadmap for delivering your message to the toxic leader. The communication plan should include clear and straightforward messaging. Much like managing a project, you must design your risk plan mitigation plan to eliminate or minimize the impact of risks. Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to create these plans for most planned interactions. It’s time-consuming and unproductive. 2) I believe Toxic Leaders are worth avoiding at all costs. Take steps to manage and still succeed by getting help from your peers and mentors. Professional support builds confidence and results in thoughtful actions. Also, be objective with each of your achievements. I suggest special attention to remaining calm, being flexible, and keeping quiet. If you decide to leave a toxic job, remember this job can set the tone for the next one. While you may consider telling your manager your thoughts on improving the environment, resist the urge to speak negatively. Thoughtful planning and strategic career search practices can dictate how quickly and easily you find your next opportunity. Good luck!
Author: Sean Delaney, GovCon innovator who helps federal agencies with solutions that improve performance, reduce risks, and increase efficiencies, is a Sr. Vice President at MBA CSi
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