Everyone wants to be a great leader. Trouble is, the definition of “leader” isn’t that obvious and isn’t static. Just google the differences between “leaders” and “managers” to start. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
As of this writing, there are more than 267 million results. Now, repeat the same search exercise using “leader” and “coach.” Feeling brave? Do it again for “leader” and “teacher.”
The fundamental question from these millions and millions of search results is this: what in the world is expected of leaders today?
It is fair to say that most “leaders” – both in government and in the private sector – are expected to transcend these trite labels. At the same time, they are expected to embody these very same labels despite their vagueness. That is the paradox of leadership. Based on reading just a few of the search results we found above, a “leader” in today’s dynamic, decentralized, and digital marketplace bears a heavy burden.
A, B, C, or D – All of the Above?
Let’s give a few examples of the dichotomies most leaders face today (not be confused with the excellent book). Leaders must deliver tangible results and get things done through others. But they must also nurture the ambitions and talents of staff. Leaders must serve the organizational agenda. But they must also serve their teams. Leaders must manage how their staff spend time, define goals and track milestones. But they must also provide constructive feedback, offer professional coaching, and conduct appraisals. Leaders must inspire their teams with big picture thinking and deep emotional connection linked to mission and impact. But they must also educate, correct, and guide. Leaders must have a long-term horizon. But they must also make decisions that have near-term impact. Leaders must have the answers to big questions. But they must also ask Socrates-like questions to draw out insight from others. Leaders must be able to communicate vision and inspire action. But they must also model the values and beliefs of the organization. Yeesh! All those 160 million search results start to make sense now.
A Recipe for Leadership in 2020
The transition from “non-leader” to “leader” is not for the meek. True leadership today is all-encompassing (and with the evolution of the labor market, potentially expanding). Think about the best “leader” you have worked with or for. There is a high likelihood he or she acted across all four domains – as a manager, as a coach, as a teacher, and as a leader. And, just as importantly, it likely took concerted effort and focused energy for him or her to get there.
The modern definition of leadership is an ill-defined mashup of our favorite ingredients. A spoonful of management, a dollop of coaching, and a cup full of teaching… with a sprinkle of vision and dab of long-term thinking on top. Quite the recipe.
In the face of an ill-defined recipe of traits and growing set of responsibilities, what are we to do?
Instead of a silver bullet solution, let’s try three simple suggestions to get you started.
Clearly define who you are across all four dimensions of “leadership”
A leader’s unwritten job responsibilities may include attributes typically associated with manager, coach, and teacher. For that reason, clarity and internal alignment matters. Take 10-minutes and map where your focus is across the various dimensions. What is first, second, third, and fourth given your current professional situation and personal ambition?
Now imagine you were able to consciously distribute your energy, attention, passion, and focus across these dimensions. Write down your optimal allocation. This is a choice that has no right or wrong answer but does offer broad implications. These allocations can (and should) change over time. Naturally, where you work and what is expected of you may also change as you shift firms and roles.
Practically speaking, how you appear in the world would (should) be very different based on your optimal allocation. For example, if you chose an optimal allocation of 50% manager, 30% coach, 10% leader, and 10% teacher, you may act one way. But if you chose 40% leader, 30% coach, 25% teacher, and 5% manager, you would likely show up quite differently.
Define yourself for yourself. Then remind yourself to show up optimally every day.
Contextualize your approach.
Now that you have allocated your leadership mojo across the various dimensions, the key is consciously deciding how to deploy them. It goes without saying that tailoring one’s approach requires context and is inherently situational. For example, whether you show up as a coach or a manager depends on who you are interacting with (e.g., direct report or not), the medium of the interaction (e.g., one-on-one meeting or group), the purpose (e.g., status check or problem solving), and much more. The key is being mindful about which of the dimensions you demonstrate in a given moment.
An easy, ubiquitous reminder to make sure to contextualize your leadership approach is the doorway. Upon entering any new room, we typically walk through a door. Use that moment in time to orient yourself on which leadership dimension you will (primarily) utilize in the context of the event that is about to start. The simple act of making a conscious choice will boost your leadership game.
Develop yourself across dimensions.
A leader never stops growing and improving. Given the dichotomies of leadership, it is especially important to understand your personal strengths within each of the dimensions. What makes you a compelling leader? How are you especially effective as a coach? Why do others enjoy working for you as a manager?
Of course, each of these dimensions sub-divides into several skills and traits. What defines a great coach? It’s not just one element but a combination of things. That is why it is critical for you to identify what makes you unique. That’s the spike in your leadership. Then make sure you flex it regularly through practice, training, reading, etc.
One specific way to do this is to publicly proclaim your development area. Share your area of focus with your peers and with your team. For example, “Over the next 3 months, I am focused on utilizing X more often. Please catch me when I slip.” Or “I am working on becoming more Y. Please provide examples of when you observe me doing it effectively.” The public declaration of one’s willingness to seek help around professional development works regardless of one’s title or tenure. It both forces action on your part as well as invites support from others.
If we all could simply run into a phone booth, change clothes, and transform into a different type of leader, we would. Being a coach is different from being a manager. The same can be said of teacher and leader. Part of the challenge is that phone booths have gone extinct while the expectations of and on leaders has only grown. Superman had it easy.
Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across state, local, federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.