True-To-Self Leadership: Finding the Right Fit


Everyone has one of those photos your parents took when you were a kid and you’re wearing your parent’s shoes, right? You want to be like mom or dad so you try to walk around and end up tripping and falling down. The shoes are awkwardly large and obviously not meant for you. It’s the same message when developing your leadership style and it’s the most important principal of leadership I have learned: find what fits for you.

In a recent animated film, a wise old turtle while talking with his trainee who is struggling with finding his unique path, explains it in this way while standing in a peach orchard: ‘But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.’ Attempting to be something you are not it futile and it often leads to more frustration. You must find the leadership style that works for you.

During the summer of 2013, I was promoted as an Assistant Store Manager and I joined a well-established, close-knit team of supervisors and managers. There were many personalities but the true leaders were not at the top of the hierarchy. I felt I was going to have to prove myself as a first time manager amongst veteran employees, some of who had been passed over for the position I was now holding. I hadn’t established my own leadership style so I acted as a sponge and tried to mimic others around me. It was insincere, ineffective and downright comical at times. I rightfully had no credibility and did more damage to my attempts at leading than help.

The problem all started with the title. Before you ever become a leader by name, you were already a leader. But then there comes this pressure of suddenly being thrust into a ‘supervisor’ role and suddenly, you don’t know who you are. Can I still talk with my friends at work? How am I supposed to act now? For some this comes easily because this principle is second nature. But for others, like myself, who are ‘People Pleasers’, ‘Relators’, ‘Wooers’, this is more complicated. We want to be everything to everybody and so we emulate the world around us to show that we belong. But it’s never going to fit unless it’s tailored to our individual strengths.

There is also a balance to be found. If you ever think ‘I am going to be solely ‘X’ type of leader’ (strong vs. understanding, hands-off vs side-by-side), you will quickly see a one-dimensional approach is disastrous:

-If you are only ‘strong’ you will be the jerk no one wants to work for without compassion or empathy.

-If you are only ‘understanding’ you will be a door mat for those who want to exert their own will without a firm foundation of expectations.

-If you are only ‘hands-off’ you will be out of touch with the realities your team faces and written off as totally unhelpful.

-If you are only ‘side-by-side’ you won’t be able to complete the work specifically intended for you and may cause your team to feel unneeded.

You have seen many examples of leaders before you. You know what the good and bad looks like. It’s ok to take pieces from others but you have to make it work for you to be successful.

How many leadership ‘Self-Help’ and ‘How-To’ books are out there? How many classes and seminars and manuals? THOUSANDS! And they all have the best ideas, tips and tricks. And what you read in those books and blogs and what you practice in your development class all claim to be the solution! But it’s all different. How can you possibly implement all of those tactics and best practices? You can’t! You must find what fits you.

I’ve discovered MY style but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. While I do feel there are general universal principles that promote success (finding balance and tailoring to fit your unique strengths), it’s good to remember that those authors and bloggers who offer their advice are doing so with one caveat: it’s what worked for them. It’s a great opportunity to test drive it for your leadership style, but don’t hold onto it if it doesn’t fit.

That same wise turtle also said ‘One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.’ Don’t avoid your best leadership style by trying to be something you are not. Those shoes you are trying to fill don’t fit. When you find YOUR best fit, you will find success.

Wondering what your strengths are and how to highlight them as a leader? Gallup has some amazing tools that will highlight your best attributes and how to make the most of them. Visit (Note: I am not a paid advertiser, but I use this program every day and it’s a great resource.)

Kellen Sweny is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Helen Smith

Thank You for this helpful and wonderful information. In my opinion you are doing a Great Job in your New Position. 10/20/2016