Clarify your leadership style with three simple questions

Recently I was asked: “Are you a leader?” My interlocutor was looking at me straight in the eyes as if he was trying to detect any gesture that would reveal my strong or poor leadership skills. At the time, he was holding my CV listing my work experience, achievements and management track record in his hands. As I answered, I tried not to blink in case he perceived this as weakness and answered in a strong, unwavering voice: “Yes, I am.”

The next day he politely told me he didn’t think that I was the leader that he was looking for. It then struck me that I should have actually answered his question with three of my own!

First, I should have asked him: “What is your definition of leadership?” The second question, a self-reflective one: “Can I be the leader that I want to be in this organisation?” This would have taken me to my last question, also a rhetorical one: “Why do I feel I need to mimic male leadership traits to succeed?”

I found the definition of leadership that resonates with me most in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In where she quotes Professor Frances Frei and Senior Associate Dean Youngme Moon from Harvard Business School: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure the impact lasts in your absence.”

I like it because the emphasis is on making a difference to the world around you (your workplace, your clients, your family, your community…) rather than on being able to perform a series of tasks. Don’t get me wrong, creating strategy, building teams, implementing plans and handling big budgets are necessary leadership skills. But for me the quote clearly shows the difference between a true leader and talented manager.

Yes, I have hired and fired people, crunched mind-numbing budgets, developed strategies and participated in high-level meetings. Did that make me a good leader? Not necessarily. You are not a real leader just because you are promoted (or parachuted) into a leadership position. Some people are lucky enough to be gifted with leadership qualities at the cradle, but for most of us it is a long and winding learning process.

Looking back at that meeting, it is clear that my interviewer and I didn’t share the same definition of leadership. That made the answer to my second question: “Can I be the leader that I want to be in this organisation?” quite straightforward. It was obvious that we didn’t agree on what constitutes a true leader. Fitting my leadership style to his expectations and company culture would not have been a sustainable option.

Of course you must be able to relate to, and identify yourself with, an organisation’s culture and values. But squeezing people into the same mould is counterproductive. Diversity – whether it is in terms of background, skills or the way in which we interpret and approach life and work – is a clear competitive advantage in today’s fast-paced, interconnected world.

My habit of mirroring male leaders is almost like a conditioned response. I have worked in organisations where your commitment to the business was questioned if you left the office to pick up the children. I mimicked the male attitudes and postures I saw around me as I thought it was the only way to climb the corporate ladder. It was a choice, albeit an unconscious one at the time, but an easy habit to pick up again.

John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio have done a survey of 64,000 people which found that feminine leadership traits and values are becoming increasingly sought after in the corporate world. Typically women encourage people to be more flexible, collaborative, nurturing and focused on the long-term. But the sad reality is that systemically dysfunctional organisations still encourage dominant male behaviours in the workplace today.

For women of my generation, it is important that we become more comfortable with our feminine leadership attributes. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to strike the sweet spot between our feminine side and a go-getter male attitude in the office.

So, here are the things I took away from that meeting:

  • Not everyone has the same definition of leadership and leaders do (and should!) come in all shapes and sizes.
  • True leaders don’t fit into organisations; they add-value by being different. They bring a high-level perspective to an organisation and are able to use the right leadership style at any given time.
  • Women who mimic male behaviours in the office might get promotions, but they’re also making choices. There’s a time to be soft-spoken and warm, and a time when you need to negotiate hard for what you believe in.

He was right. I wasn’t the leader he wanted and we were a clear mismatch. And if I had to answer that question again, I would say with a smile: “Yes, I am a leader, and I’ve now found the right platform from which to contribute to business and the community in a meaningful way.”

How would you have answered the three questions?

Laura is a certified executive coach and trainer. She will be facilitating the JUMP Academy workshopA real challenge for women in business: just a job or authentic leadership?’ on Thursday 28 November 2013. Programme and registration :

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