- Leadership styles present a puzzle for many new leaders, but even seasoned managers still question the type of leader they want to be.
- Demands of leaders evolve over time. Consider the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic when decisive, adaptive leaders were most successful in transitioning their teams to remote working, but empathetic, collaborative styles helped to unite teams throughout the crisis.
- Strong leaders tend to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, but research shows self-awareness is not a common trait.
When Karen Loon FCA was put in charge of a large audit relationship at PwC in Singapore almost 10 years ago, she knew she could lead, but would her team follow? Unlike the autocratic leadership methods of her predecessors, Loon preferred a democratic style. “My colleagues all approached leadership differently,” says Loon, now a non-executive director and the author of Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling.
“I didn’t have as much senior leadership experience at this point in my career, so I wasn’t sure which style would suit.”
Leadership styles present a puzzle for many new leaders, but even seasoned managers still question the type of leader they want to be.
If transformation is the goal, should they adopt the authoritarian approach of former Apple chief Steve Jobs? “My job is to not be easy on people,” Jobs told Fortune magazine in 2008. “My job is to make them better.”
Perhaps the management style of Arianna Huffington would be a better fit. The empathetic approach of The Huffington Post co-founder helped other companies grasp the correlation between employee wellbeing and productivity. In the office of her current venture, Thrive Global, employees are encouraged to take a 20-minute snooze in the ‘nap pod’ to recharge.
Is it even possible to choose your own leadership style? Can it be honed or is it hardwired?
Charting the course
Demands of leaders evolve over time. Consider the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic when decisive, adaptive leaders were most successful in transitioning their teams to remote working, but empathetic, collaborative styles helped to unite teams throughout the crisis.
Gabrielle Dolan, leadership specialist and author of the book Real Communication: How To Be You and Lead True, says every individual will have an innate leadership style, but there are elements that can be taught. “We’ve seen this more than ever since COVID, which changed the way we work and therefore changed the way leaders need to lead.
“Authoritarian-style leaders, for instance, who demand that everyone work from the office are going to lose good people,” she says.
Empathy and positivity are inherent skills for successful leadership today, agrees Mel Kettle, leadership specialist and author of Fully Connected: How Great Leaders Prioritise Themselves, Reclaim Their Energy and Find Joy. “But you may still need training and coaching to gain the confidence that you’re on the right track,” she says.
Certainly, when Loon took on the audit relationship in Singapore almost a decade ago, she decided to talk to a leadership coach. “I wanted to make sure I could still be myself, but I knew I’d need to experiment,” she says.
Loon had started her career at PwC in Sydney before moving to Singapore and says her preferred leadership style was shaped by role models early in her career. “I never appreciated micromanagement,” she says. “I liked to be given a lot of scope to try things out, but to be guided along the way. That’s how I like to lead teams.”
Loon says organisational structure in Singapore tends to be more hierarchical than in Australia, so she wanted to break down some barriers. “In a work context, people in Asia can often be quite hesitant to deal directly with what is known as ‘the big boss’,” she says. “But I thought, if I’m building a team, we have to be comfortable working together. From the start, whenever someone joined my team, I’d have a coffee with them and schedule one-on-one meetings with team members, which was quite unusual in Singapore at the time.
“I wanted to build ties with them and show I had an interest in them and their careers,” she adds. “I wasn’t there just to lead them to complete the audit. I wanted to be an empathetic leader who brought everyone along. I think that really worked.”
Pictured: Karen Loon FCA. Image credit: Memphis West Pictures Pte. Ltd.
“I wanted to build ties with them and show I had an interest in them and their careers (...) I wasn’t there just to lead them to complete the audit. I wanted to be an empathetic leader who brought everyone along. I think that really worked.”
Who do you think you are?
Strong leaders tend to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, but research shows self-awareness is not a common trait. Findings of a study, What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It) by Tasha Eurich, published in Harvard Business Review in 2018 showed while most people believe they are self-aware, only 10–15% of the people studied actually fit the criteria.
“Self-awareness is the primary quality of good leaders,” explains Kettle.
“The more self-aware you are the more you understand your values, priorities, strengths and weaknesses, and the impact of your attitude and behaviour on others. But it takes time and effort to become self-aware and it requires asking yourself the hard questions. People often don’t like to acknowledge their weaknesses because it’s really confronting.”
For Linda Waddington-Miller CA, finance director of beverage company Lion in Auckland, understanding both has been vital in leading her team and co-leading the business during a time of change.
“One of my strengths is that I’ve got a lot of get-up-and-go and I like to move fast, but that can be really hard for people sometimes,” she says. “I think it’s possible to overuse a strength. Sometimes you need to lean on your strengths and be prepared to pull back at the right moment as well.”
Waddington-Miller joined Lion on a three-month analyst contract in 2012 and was appointed finance director in September last year. “I was pretty clear on how I lead best, but it was more about how I apply it to the role. What’s the job to be done and how do I get everyone pointing the same direction?”
In 2019, Waddington-Miller completed a seven-month leadership development program at Harvard Business School, which helped to build self-awareness. As part of the program, she asked a group of colleagues, friends and family members to write a short story that described how they’d experienced her at her best.
“It was quite moving, because it came from such a cross-section of people in my life,” says Waddington-Miller. “It really helped me to understand how others see me.”
Key themes Waddington-Miller drew from the exercise were that she could “energise people to get behind something” and clearly communicate the “how and why” of change. “I could also see that I tend to move at a relentless pace at the start, but I’m not so great at the finish line,” she says. “It’s a bit like golf – I really like driving off at the tee, but I’m not so good at faffing around with putting at the other end. That’s why I need a team around me who are strong at finishing things up.”
Pictured: Linda Waddington-Miller CA. Image credit: Adam Firth
“I definitely believe you can change your leadership style by learning more about yourself and others.”
Reading the room
Some leaders are known for their distinctive leadership style, but strong leaders will actually adapt to suit a situation, according to Dolan. “Your natural style might be that of a collaborative leader, but there may be situations that warrant directional leadership,” she says. “It’s about whether or not you can read the room and adapt as required.”
That’s the method adopted by Liz O’Neil CA, chief financial officer at Coca- Cola EuroPacific Partners, New Zealand. She gained leadership opportunities early in her career, but finds it difficult to define her leadership style today.
“It’s such a hard question, because I find that leadership style is very much relationship-based,” she says. “Every relationship you have with an individual is different – they may have different needs, or they may be at a different stage in their career or there may be other dynamics going on.
Pictured: Liz O’Neil CA. Image credit: Adam Firth
“I find that leadership style is very much relationship-based. Every relationship you have with an individual is different”
“My style is bespoke to the individual I’m leading – that’s how you can get the best out of them in their role,” O’Neil says. It’s the same for Guy Pearson CA, co-founder of professional services software company Ignition, who admits a fixed leadership style is hard to nail down. He says his approach continues to morph as the business grows.
When he launched what was then Practice Ignition in 2013, Pearson “did everything,” he says. “In sport, they’re referred to as a ‘player-coach’,” he says. “I was on the field with everyone else, but I was also in charge of our strategy.
“As we’ve grown, that style has had to change, because if I jump in and try to do everything, I can end up kneecapping someone else. That’s been one of my biggest lessons,” says Pearson, who was running his own accounting practice prior to starting Ignition, which now employs about 190 people across seven global offices.
“I’m a mix between being hands-off, hands-on and empowering the team, but sometimes old habits kick in and I’ll jump in because we don’t have a lot of time,” he adds. “Thankfully, those occasions are pretty rare as we get bigger.”
Pictured: Guy Pearson CA. Image credit: Graham Jepson
“I’m a mix between being hands-off, hands-on and empowering the team, but sometimes old habits kick in and I’ll jump in because we don’t have a lot of time.”
Pearson believes all leaders need an ability to let go and trust the people they lead. “If you’re unable to do this, your business will hit a brick wall at some point,” he says. “But you need to be able to respond quickly to what your business needs from you.”
Born or made?
Can leaders learn these skills, or are they innate? For Pearson, it’s a bit of both. “I don’t think you can just read a leadership book and suddenly you’re a different kind of leader,” he says. “It needs to be something that you consciously do.
“I’m a good learner by trial and error. I learned early in my career that the only way a company can grow is if the leader doesn’t hold on to anything too tightly. I think a natural disposition for leadership includes an ability to trust people and show that they can trust you.”
Waddington-Miller believes individual personalities determine leadership styles. “But I definitely believe you can change your leadership style by learning more about yourself and others,” she says. “It’s just important that you do it without changing the things you’re naturally strong in.”
O’Neil agrees leaders require an ability to keep learning. “I think good leaders have an underlying foundation that supports an ability to learn how to lead people,” she says.
In fact, leaders should expect their style to evolve over time, says Dolan. “Think of the kind of leader you were at 30, for instance. You might be a very different leader when you are 50. It’s good to think that we all evolve into a better version of ourselves, so you’d hope that your leadership style evolves into a better version of leadership.”
Dolan adds that leadership is ultimately about getting the best out of the people you lead. “So, it really should be about the style that works for them, not necessarily what works for you.”
Furthermore, good leaders learn from the people they lead, says Kettle. “They ask questions, they listen and they observe.
“They identify what’s going to be the most appropriate style to get the best out of the people who are looking to them for leadership,” she says, adding “sometimes you need to micromanage this person over here, but the person over there might respond better to autonomy with just regular check-ins.”
For Loon, leadership is a skill that can be learned. “I don’t know if people are born leaders, but our early experiences can help shape the leaders we become,” she says. “I also think you have to learn to become a leader, because so much of it is about how to get others to follow you.”
Leadership advice from the top
Pictured: Linda Waddington-Miller CA (left) and Liz O’Neil CA. Image credit: Adam Firth
“Trust is important in leadership. It doesn’t matter what kind of company you work in, you are leading humans. That means you need to show empathy and a degree of vulnerability to build trust.”
“You need to be honest with yourself about where your strengths lie in the first place. Where things haven’t gone well in a situation, ask yourself why that was, and what part you played in it.”
“You need to connect and build relationships with people. Leadership should not be transactional – think about who the individual is and then how you get the best out of them and don’t just focus on the function.”
“Be open to feedback. Consider how you can improve yourself as well as your team – what could you do differently? Also, find mentors and role models for leadership.”
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