Stop Trying to Find “Your” Leadership Style—Instead Get Better at Reading and Responding to Situations

A few weeks ago, I watched the 1962 James Bond classic film, Dr. No, and mused at the variety of ways that things have changed since the film was made. Setting aside the numerous disturbing ways in which Sean Connery’s character treats women (as they have been contemplated at length elsewhere), there are quite a few lighter ways in which the film gives away its age. The high-waisted, pleated pants that billow around the characters are a stark contrast to today’s skinny jeans. In fact, a complete absence of technical gear outside of SCUBA equipment stands out, along with the “cutting edge” technology that is now ancient. The filmmaking style itself is rather different from today’s CGI-driven action storytelling. In short, Dr. No is clearly an artifact of its time—and we all get a kick out of seeing what’s changed over time because we expect styles of clothing and film making to shift. And yet, we tend to see styles of learning and leadership as fixed and immutable. That’s stange; what’s the difference?

Sometimes we adopt and hold onto ideas because they are intuitively appealing. We appreciate parsimony. There is good evidence that we actually are wired to reject or reinterpret evidence that our way of seeing the world is inaccurate and seek out confirmation that our understanding is the right one. When it comes to being an effective leader or manager, though, the idea that our style is fixed and doesn’t change undermines the flexibility required of effective change leaders.

Daniel Goleman, who is perhaps best known for his research on applications of emotional intelligence, found that there are six emotional leadership styles: Commanding, Visionary, Affiliate, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching. Not surprisingly, some of these are more effective than others and some have more beneficial long-term effects than others. But what may be surprising is that these are not styles that some people have and some don’t; they are styles that can be cultivated and applied when the right situation presents itself.

The best leaders are able to see and diagnose what kind of leadership is needed in a particular context, and then either adapt to fill the need, or position others to play that role effectively. The trouble is, most leaders commonly struggle to do one or both of those things in part because they try to embody the leadership style they think best matches their personality or, worse, they try to play the role of the leader they think they should be.

Leadership is a glass house. If you aren’t being honest or authentic, you are probably only fooling yourself (and trust me, no one who works for you is going to let you in on that secret). You may find that none of these leadership styles is one that resonates with you because you don’t feel comfortable leading. Or, you may find that you gravitate toward a style, like Commanding, that seems to work in the moment but has deleterious long-term effects on your team and culture. In another variation on that theme, you may find that despite trying to shift, you consistently fall into the same patterns of ineffective leadership behavior.

All of these point to the same thing: understanding and proactively cultivating leadership skills is essential. The stories of Tom Brady and Micheal Jordan are well-known: they got where they are not by having the most natural talent but by working very hard for a long time. In contrast, Naomi Osaka, LeBron James, and Willie Mays are popularly lauded as being born with unparalleled skill. But despite their diversity of inborn talent they all have one thing in common: they practice (or practiced) diligently to achieve mastery of their craft. If you are a leader, you can only expect to be great if you practice, too.