We tend to think of leadership as being synonymous with dominance. We encourage young leaders to charge forward with their ideas and rise to the forefront through sheer willpower. But, I wonder – are we handicapping the next generation of leaders by forcing them to embrace a single mode of leadership? There is, of course, a place for assertiveness in the workplace; hardly anything would be brought to completion without the confident direction of a leader. That said, I believe that there are variations within the expression of confidence than can serve as the foundation for other, perhaps subtler, forms of leadership.
Imagine for a moment that you are standing in a room filled with your coworkers. The room is tense, agitated even, as the group attempts to resolve a business crisis. From your encounters outside the room, you know that each individual possesses the creativity and business savvy to tackle the problem at hand. However, you cannot for the life of you hear any of their suggested solutions clearly – because every person is talking over their neighbor in an attempt to push their idea into prominence. After hours of argument, the group finally settles on the most loudly-posited solution and necessarily pushes many other worthy options to the side. As this scenario outlines, establishing a single mode of leadership as the professional “norm” ultimately hinders innovation and slows productivity in the workplace.
I firmly believe that we need to broaden the definition of leadership – or at least, to create a better understanding of what an effective leader is. As Alexander Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Michael Platow note in their text, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, “Leadership is not simply about getting people to do things. It is about getting them to ‘want’ to do things…if one can inspire people to want to travel in a given direction then they will continue to act even in the absence of the leader.” As the authors suggest, leadership requires the ability to inspire loyalty and trust, rather than to simply compel obedience. By defining leadership within the thin bounds of assertive management, we do other modes of influence a great disservice. Instead of demanding a homogenous group of managers, why not cultivate a diverse class of leaders?
Consider the empathetic listeners and clever strategists, the subtle influencers and quiet organizers. None of these types are fall within the stereotype of an “aggressive” leader – and yet, they are powerful presences in the workplace. In business, as in life, people have varying strengths and weaknesses – the test of leadership lies in one’s ability to recognize and utilize those strengths to one’s advantage in an interpersonal setting. According to a study published in Human Research Management, subjects who overrated their abilities were rated the lowest in both self-awareness (i.e., an accurate assessment of self and willingness to improve) and overall leadership effectiveness. Conversely, leaders who demonstrated humility and self-awareness were ranked the highest as effective leaders. Thus, it doesn’t matter which management style a leader adopts in the office, so long as they are able to accurately perceive their own skills and scope of influence. These individuals are interpersonal innovators, adept at recognizing others’ potentials and envisioning roles to suit each team member’s’ unique strengths.
True innovation sparks when different modes of thinking meet – so why do we continue to limit professional leadership to a single definition? The widely-accepted assertive leadership style certainly has its place in the office; it provides structure and strength within the corporate milieu. However, there is also a place for sensitivity and empathy; for those who lead through quiet inspiration and calculated thoughtfulness. One leadership method is not greater than the other – rather, we need both in order to promote a balance and effective working environment.