What’s Your Leadership Style?

By Jim Walton, CEO, Brand Acceleration, Inc.

Over the decades, I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders of all types. I use the term “leader” loosely because, through watching others, I’ve formed a clear opinion of just what I believe makes a good leader.

One of my earliest experiences was when I worked as an advertising manager for a young couple who owned a retail store. His style was to work hard to be everyone’s friend. He treated employees and vendors as if they were family. He was overwhelmingly nice to everyone he met. The result was that people would do just about anything he asked. Employees would take on tasks without question or complaint. Vendors would jump through unimaginable hoops for him. Many took advantage of him, too. A result he hadn’t anticipated.

His wife and business partner was the exact opposite. She was demanding, rude, verbally abusive, and mistreated everyone in her path. They fought like cats and dogs, and eventually divorced. He got the business and, with the help of a carefully-selected management team, grew it into a successful multi-location enterprise.

From them, I learned how to treat people; when to be gentle, when to be stern, when to give, and when to take. Most of all, I learned how to get things done while respecting the needs and feelings of others.

In another position, I worked for a hard-as-nails retired Marine Corps Colonel. He was very demanding and had an explosive temper. He had an opinion and you had better darn-well listen to him. He demanded hard work, loyalty, excellent soft skill traits, and guts. If you chickened out and became a yes man, you’d better have an alternate career plan. He had no patience for wimps. What made him unique was that he stayed out of the way of his managers. He lived by the belief that good leaders should hire great people, pay them well, and get out of their way.

From him, I learned to focus on forming a great team of professionals. Great staff and vendors go a long way to making an organization successful. I’m not a micromanager and I expect excellence and passion from my team, including our clients.

Here’s another story; this one about e fellow economic developer. A local economic development organization (EDO) had a long history of churning executive directors. They would hire people with limited experience who they could get cheap. To compensate for the lack of experience, the executive committee would micromanage the person, giving him or her very limited authority. From staff decisions, to spending, to travel; everything required approval. As a result, anyone with a bit of passion would get a little experience and then move on. The pattern repeated itself several times.

One day, during interviews to fill the again-vacant position, they encountered a candidate with some courage. After the interview, the executive committee tried to brush him off with your basic “Thank you, we’ll be in touch” statement. Having no part of that, he said the following: “Thank you very much for the very kind interview and for the opportunity to be considered. I feel there is one thing that needs to be thoroughly understood. If you hire me to be your next executive director, you will be thoroughly informed about all the organizations activities. I will report to you and seek your advice often. However, I will not ask your permission to do anything. I am an expert who knows this business intimately. All decisions will be mine, and mine alone. If you can’t, or won’t, accept my style of leadership, it is best that we part right now, no feelings hurt.” They were shocked. And, they hired him on the spot. That was several years ago, and he’s still successfully running the organization.

Today, I see all kinds of leadership styles. Some are quite effective, while others are nearly always doomed.

Over the years, I’ve learned to recognize the difference between a coordinator and a leader.

A coordinator is a person who struggles to assure that everyone is heard and that no feelings are hurt. This person refuses to push, nudge, and drive a group toward a decision. This trait is often just inexperience, but it can also be a sign of weakness, a trait that can be deadly in the business world.

A leader takes charge of an organization or a situation and firmly, but professionally, steers the effort toward a successful conclusion. A great leader inspires people to succeed, resulting in a sense of accomplishment. That’s the goal; making decisions and getting things done.

The world is full of coordinators, but at a time when people are increasingly fearful of hurting the feelings of others, inspiring leaders are becoming hard to find.

Which are you, a coordinator, or a leader?