We tend to speak of “leadership” as though it is a single thing, as though the word describes one type of role. The truth is that there are many leadership types. This is important to know because disasters come from miss-matching the style of the leader to the needs of the leadership role.

We know this viscerally. We’ve all seen the entrepreneur who can start a venture but who can’t manage that venture once it is launched. The entrepreneur and the manager are both leaders, but two different types. One breaks new ground. The other steadily grows a multifaceted organization. The one is fiery, hard-hitting, and brash. The other is even-handed, measured, and steady at the helm. We need both, but which one at which time and in which role?

We’ve also seen the commander-type—common in business and the military—used to a top-down, authoritative approach to leadership. This type of leader often runs into conflict with the consensus-oriented, democratic, let’s-hear-all-opinions-before-we-act leader. This latter type of leader is common in universities, in government and, often, in non-profit organizations. Both types are needed. Both are valuable. But you have to get them rightly slotted.

You don’t want General Patton running the Faculty Senate at the university. You also don’t want Professor Jones running the Third Armored Division.

There are dozens of other types. One I particularly like but which is often overlooked is what I call the “skill leader.” I’m thinking of an accountant I know who could never lead masses of people but who leads dozens of other accountants in accomplishing amazing things. He’s a leader and he leads well. Yet he is only gifted for leading people of his skill type. This, too, is a valuable type of leader.

I’ve know many leaders who are great speakers and who can rally the troops. Yet once the troops gather around and are ready for that next command, the rhetorically gifted leader often doesn’t know what to do. He needs an executive officer who knows how to get done what has been beautifully defined in a speech. These, too, are types of leadership, yet confusing the one type with the other will lead to failure. The pages of history show that confusing these two types of leaders in times of war can lead to unnecessary death and destruction.

There are many different systems for categorizing leadership styles. Use one of them, or use all of them, or make up your own. The important thing is that you are able to see and value all the versions of leadership that will make your organization a success.

Once you have this scheme of understanding, you must figure out what kind of leader you are. Think about this long and thoroughly. Go beyond the word “leader” and ask, “What type of leader am I?”— “In what type of situation will I perform best?”

Once you are clear about yourself, look at those leaders you lead. You don’t want a company of clones. You want a company of leaders who complement each other, who round each other out, and highlight each other’s strengths. Even a commonplace diamond looks stunning in the right setting. Part of your job as a leader is to position all other leaders in your firm in the setting that allows them to succeed.

Framing a leader correctly, putting him or her in the setting that allows their gifts to shine, is one of the great arts of senior leadership. Get good at this. Get help. Get all your leadership pistons firing well. This is leadership greatness.


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