Debates about leadership often end up by contrasting different leadership styles, and inviting prospective leaders to detect which one suits them best and then build on it. Be true to yourself, the argument runs. There are numerous lists of styles to choose from: a recent piece in Forbes argued for four of them; Daniel Goleman lists six; other research suggests there are twelve.
My take is different.
While I believe strongly in personal authenticity, I also believe in the acquisition of entirely new mindsets where necessary – otherwise ‘authenticity’ becomes an excuse to avoid personal growth. Leadership requires personal change, especially working effectively in areas that are not the leader’s comfort zone.
I believe that there is one core leadership style, one that balances the various requirements that the actual experience of leadership imposes on the leader – it demands that we play many different roles at many different times. We can’t just say ‘sorry, that’s not me’. That is why it is so challenging and exciting.
Let me give a practical example of this in action.
From time to time, I will ask a very specific question of my finance director about a particular line of a report or even a cell in Excel. This isn’t just for clarification, it is to show that I am aware of what he is doing. It is essential he believes that I am.
Finance isn’t my comfort zone, but unless my directors believe I understand it well enough, they will take over their function and I will lose leadership influence.
This idea that ‘balance is of the essence’ is not new: it has been part of Chinese thought for over two millennia, via the concepts of yin and yang. These are sometimes seen as competing opposites, yang being hard and forceful, while yin is gentle and compromising.
However at a deeper level they are mutually dependent. Yang contains the seed of yin, and yin the seed of yang; neither has much meaning without the other. Reality, in the traditional Chinese model, is seen as a continual interaction between the two, with one predominating at one time and the other at another. Wise individuals adapt themselves to the current state of this perpetual ebb and flow.
Such material might seem too ethereal for the tough, immediate business of selecting and developing leaders in a twenty-first century organization, but I believe the model offers a good metaphor for organizational life – and an important message. Good leaders are what the situation requires them to be.
Having sounded cynical about numbered lists of leadership styles, I must now admit to having created one of my own – though my difference is that I believe that leaders must cultivate all of them, not simply find the one that suits them best.
I find it helpful to see these different leadership aspects as roles, and I believe that we all have the innate ability to perform these roles.
These innate abilities I frame as archetypes, another concept that can be written off by sceptics as ethereal but which I have found to be of great practical use.
My own list of archetypes comprises ten. Nine of them exist in a 3x3 matrix, and six of these are either yang or yin. The yang archetypes first. The Boss is forceful, decisive and a little scary when necessary. The Express Train is the doer, the person who injects energy into the organization (leaders get things done).
The Fox has a nose for both opportunity and trouble, and will come up with ingenious ways of dealing with either.
These are often seen as ‘what leadership is all about’, but pure yang qualities can drive people and organizations into brick walls.
Each of these needs a balancing yin archetype. The Coach has a passion for developing the talent around them. It ensures that the Boss doesn’t turn into a bully (and The Boss, in return, ensures that the Coach subordinates its concern for individuals to the larger interests of the organisation).
The Alarm Bell tells the Express Train it is going too far, too fast (and the Express Train, in return, pushes aside any propensity for excessive caution the Alarm Bell might have). The Friend counteracts the Fox’s selfish tendency to exploit relationships (and the Fox reminds the Friend that, however pleasurable and synergistic they are, personal relationships are always ultimately between individuals who have their own agendas).
I must also make a bow to the ‘choose your style’ model of leadership by admitting that most of us do have a preferred style, which we default to under pressure. However I feel strongly that this defaulting can be a trap at times. Learning to use the appropriate archetype is what leadership is all about. Under pressure, leaders need to avoid defaulting to a type, and instead to find a space where they can consider all the ways they can deal with what is happening before taking action.
This is where mindfulness enters the equation.
My tenth archetype, the Conductor, sits outside the Matrix. Its job – like that of the Yijing for the Chinese sage – is to make sure that the leader plays the role (and brings to fore the archetype) that is appropriate to the situation. I believe this is best achieved through mindfulness.
My definition of mindfulness is a state where we live fully in the present moment. It is created with the practice of meditation; this builds the ‘Mindfulness Muscle’, enabling us to use it in moments of stress – as tennis player Boris Becker said, “It is what you do off the court that makes the difference on the court”.
Meditation is essentially about concentrating our attention on a simple action (breath, repeating a mantra or savouring a sensory experience) and gently but firmly maintaining this focus, despite the natural interruptions our mind makes. (Try my free meditation app.)
In this state, I have found, I am able to generally detach myself from any automatic reactions to a situation, and instead attune myself to its overall realities, after which I can intuit the right kind of response. Yin or yang, accommodating or forceful? In a mindful state, I usually know.
Mindfulness has proven mental benefits ranging from stress reduction to increasing creative centres in the brain. I believe that over time, organizations whose leaders practice mindfulness will outperform ones whose leaders do not. On a personal level, I know that since practicing mindfulness, I have become a better leader and my business has grown faster.
Mindfulness training turns out to be much more than just a stress reduction tool; it is an essential part of leadership development. Google has a mindfulness director and runs mindfulness courses, many other forward thinking companies are doing likewise.
It is at the heart of effective leadership. It creates a unique space which the leader can visit in order to ‘become the right version of themselves’ to deal with whatever issue is at hand. Such leaders will be on the way to being truly balanced; they will be on the way to getting the best out of those old apparent opposites, yin and yang.