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Rethinking Leadership - or - Maybe You’re not an Imposter

There’s more than one way to lead. 

Though, sometimes it feels like you’d be hard pressed to find any proof. 

Leader Ship Styles

In my experience, we are so collectively awestruck by the direct, dominant, decisive style of the “typical” leader, that we discount other approaches. 

I have recently heard/read multiple stories about effective leaders being told that they are too nice, not confrontational enough, need to yell more, should be more of a bulldog. These stories would be almost laughable if they weren’t so common. The feedback, by the way, has nothing to do with results . It’s just about their style not fitting the “norm.” 

I categorize this feedback under the umbrella of “you’re not leaderly enough” gaslighting. 

For people who get this baffling sort of feedback, it’s easy to feel like you’ve just landed on another planet, like you’re a fish out of water, or like you are an imposter who just doesn’t fit in. 

The “leaderly” response to these feelings and reactions is to suggest that you lack self-confidence or self-esteem. 

Maybe. Or maybe there’s more to it.

The dominant/decisive top-down style so lauded in corporate leadership represents the natural style of less than 10% of the population (based on various articles about the DISC personality model). Meaning that possibly around 90% of people have to modify their style to move up in a “dominant” led world.

No wonder so many people feel like fish out of water. 

The assumption is that dominant people make the best leaders because they are decisive. 

The problem with this assumption is that it is self-perpetuating. Dominant people get into leadership positions assuming that being dominant is the best way to lead. It works for them. So other dominant people move up the ladder, and everyone else tries to act like them in order to be successful. 

The people who are just trying to fit the mold feel like imposters, but they can’t say anything about it because 1. They fear they will be unmasked as imposters or 2. Suggesting that there might be other ways of leading is often deemed weak. The result is people feel isolated, like they’re the only one. 

Apparently not - there are a lot of us.

So here are my thoughts on this leadership imbalance: 

  1. There’s nothing wrong with decisive leadership per se - but building consensus, inspiring, and seeking understanding are also valid leadership styles.
  2. Leadership should be situational - sometimes decisiveness is best. Other times that leads to a host of problems. The key is to train people to know when to use what style. 
  3. Over-reliance on one style makes organizations (and people) lopsided. Just as over-reliance on fact-finding style leads to analysis paralysis, over-reliance on decisiveness leads to a “activity equals progress” mindset that wastes resources, ignores dissenting opinions, and misses long-term fixes while lurching from solution to solution.
  4. Forcing everyone to conform to a dominant leadership style and treating all the other styles as somehow deficient is limiting and counterproductive. Self-aware leaders, dominant or otherwise, recognize this and surround themselves with people who can provide balance.
  5. I won’t start down the DEI implications here because that would require an entire article (or a book). 

So let's stop buying into the one-style-fits-all view and recognize that there’s value in leveraging the full range of leadership styles.

While we’re at it, let’s train people to adjust their style to the situation. 

In the meantime, if you feel like a fish out of water or an imposter, remember - it might not be your lack of self-confidence but rather someone else’s overconfidence. Just a thought. 

If you are looking for support for the middle managers in your organization, or you’re a middle manager looking for coaching, send me a message at