Where Are You on the Leadership Continuum?

August 12, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – When you ask a hundred people to describe the perfect leader, you get the same answers over and over. Most people name typical qualities like “intelligent”, “decisive,” “inspirational,” and “forward-thinking.”

But these unsurprising answers can mean surprisingly different things to different people. In years of teaching leadership courses to MBAs at Stanford, I’ve seen that what two people see as “intelligent” or “visionary” may match exactly, or might not overlap at all – it depends on their own attitudes, histories, and values.

We’re often moved to join an organization based on the style and quality of its leadership, and how that approach matches our own. So, looking at each leadership characteristic as a continuum of many variations lets us pick leaders who complement our approach and style; the ones with whom we’ll do our best work.

Even better, developing a sense of where you fit in each of the categories below will help you be more intentional about developing your own leadership style and strengths:

Decisive: People generally say they like “buck-stops-here” type leaders. They’re tough-minded. They take charge. They don’t dither, delay and delegate to less decisive peers. And they get stuff done.

But to some, leaders who decide too fast or firmly can feel impetuous and dismissive. They often miss the chance to let more knowledgeable subordinates make the call, and can seem to ignore the data in favor of their own instincts. The consensus of the team may not count for much. So, what’s decisive for some is primitive for others.

Discerning: People claim they like leaders who can distinguish between the essential and the optional. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he famously “put a bullet in the head” of many legacy products in order to focus on developing Macs and iPods. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff was at the heart of his genius.

What some call discerning, however, others find judgmental, biased or mercurial. Jobs wasn’t known for being a big fan of compromise or the focus-group mentality. It turns out that what’s discerning for some is narrow-minded for others.

Visionary: Most people say they want to work for visionary leaders – the ones who see where the world is going before others do. For them, the ability to see around corners beats the plodding, pragmatic approach some people associate with professional managers.

But others see great virtue in plodding. They prefer the slower pace of hard, thoughtful work as part and parcel of getting stuff done that stays done. Visionary leaders can be impatient with on-the-ground detail and with the granular nature of execution. But people who specialize in “cutting down the trees” might not always want to think about what the forest looks like from altitude. So, what’s visionary for some is just “head-in-the-clouds” for others.

Authentic: We often say we want our leaders to be genuine, transparent, humble, and self-aware — people who are approachable, who make us feel comfortable, and whose feedback we appreciate as much as they welcome ours.

Others see this kind of openness as vulnerability — and from there, it’s a short hop to weakness. People feel they can spot a leader who’s trying too hard to be real, and who may instead come off as less than secure. Authenticity, like all of these qualities, is in the eye of the beholder.

Collaborative: Everyone says they like leaders who believe the “best idea wins.” They’re often the ones who create environments where people don’t feel competition for attention or credit, and can play off of each other to achieve common goals.

For some, though, a cousin of paralysis by analysis is strangulation by collaboration. Too many cooks, too many chiefs, too many committee-designed camels. Collaborative leaders run the risk of turning every decision into a political poll, wasting the group’s energy and bleeding it of momentum. What’s collaborative for some may be political for others.

Inspiring: Most of us like leaders who are great storytellers – they make grand plans seem doable, and give us a path to get there. This line of sight to the big goal gives people a tangible, motivating and exciting vision they can work toward.

But anecdotes are anecdotes, and facts are facts. Leaders who rely on war stories alone can lose credibility fast. They lose the sort of underpinning that comes from logic and data when they always seem to turn instead to a great story. That story can turn into a fantasy no one has the courage to wake them from. One person’s inspiring leader, therefore, may be another’s blowhard.

Intelligent: Good leaders tend to be pretty sharp. The best ones both know their industries and the street smarts to make things happen where the most brilliant theorist might get stuck.

But a leader who comes off as “the smartest guy in the room” can turn people off. For one thing, they may be reluctant to surround themselves with even smarter people – the ones who can help them avoid making bad decisions, and make good ones better. People who spend their energy proving how smart they are can alienate others in the process. One person’s smart may be another person’s smart aleck.

Every leadership challenge calls for different strengths, and every leader’s strengths will attract different supporters. Knowing the mix of leadership qualities that appeal to you, and that you want to develop in yourself, will help you find the right people and the right path to growth and success.

By Joel Peterson