“It’s My Style” Is No Excuse For Bad Leadership

We were working with a business not too long ago and during a discussion on how to help improve employee performance one of the managers described how he handled the review process. Based on how he described it, let’s just say I wouldn’t expect much improvement in performance. When I asked him why he chose to engage employees in the way he did, he responded, “That’s my leadership style.”

The term “leadership style” has been used pretty widely and there are a number of well respected organizations that have created assessments to determine which leadership style a person favors. There are documents and models that illustrate many different leadership styles and describe the pros and cons of each. There are even entire books that have been written based on the different styles of leadership. It all needs to stop.

Suppose you hired a new employee and they showed up late for weeks in a row, left early most days and spent much of their working time on Facebook. When you asked them what was going on and they responded “Well, that’s just my work style,” how would you react?
There are many managers who have committed pretty serious leadership malpractice and used leadership style as a way to simply describe micromanagement or poor communication or an inability to handle conflict. None of these are leadership, and using the word “style” to describe them only allows us to continue to explain away bad management as one person’s take on good leadership.

Good leadership is more than stock price

If we want better, more effective leaders in the world we have to start distinguishing between leadership that works and management that doesn’t. Part of the challenge is that it can be difficult to measure good leadership. People have been credited with being great leaders when the stock price goes up for a few quarters or even a few years in spite of the fact that they are creating businesses with lackluster employee engagement, low morale, and a culture of fear. It isn’t until the business crumbles in a tough marketplace or a shifting economy that we ask questions about those things and even then we typically blame the outside circumstances instead of the leadership.

There’s no question that even the best leaders have been severely challenged over the last several years, but there are businesses in virtually every economic sector that have thrived during the tough times because of their leadership. They were built to withstand change, with a culture of performance and accountability and teams of engaged people who were committed to building a strong enterprise and showing up to make a difference in something every day. Those businesses can handle even the toughest of headwinds and perform far better over time than any of their competitors.

There’s no question that individual differences are part of the leadership world. People don’t do any set of tasks exactly the same and that’s part of what drives innovation and improvement. But we have to move past saying that anyone in a supervisory or management role gets to define leadership based on their own habits, patterns, or comfort zone.

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Defining good leadership

We have to move to a place where we define what good leadership looks like in our business or organization and start setting a standard for it. What if we measured leaders based on a combined scale that included employee engagement, individual improvement, and business performance? What if we assessed the culture on the leaders team at regular intervals against what we would consider an optimal culture for sustainable growth in our business?  We need to create some kind of bar that managers have to hurdle to become leaders rather than accepting any form of management as some variation of leadership.

This isn’t easy and that is why it doesn’t happen often, but in our own business or organization we often don’t even define what we believe good leadership is. It starts there. To do that we also have to define what bad management is and we don’t do that very often either. We simply wait until the end results get bad enough to tell a manager that his or her particular style didn’t work without ever setting clear expectations for how we want people in our business to lead in the first place, or helping them develop the tools to lead that way.

You wouldn’t chalk a declining business up to just someone’s “success style” but we do that every day with leadership. Take the time to define and teach good leadership in your business and you won’t have to hope leaders naturally incorporate it as part of their style.

Randy Hall is the CEO at 4th Gear Consulting. He has worked with organizations of all sizes, from Fortune 25 businesses to small and midsize organizations, to help them effectively execute change, develop leaders, engage employees, and reach their full potential as a business. Randy serves as a consultant, coach, and facilitator to help companies lead change and build organizations that engage employees, dramatically improve results, and sustain growth.

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