Female leader

Defining your leadership style

Questions to ask yourself when reflecting on your role as a leader

Written by Doug Watson FAIM
7 minute read
Female leader

After more than 15 years of coaching managers across a broad range of industries, it is surprising how few of them cannot clearly define the sort of leader they want to be.

Upon reflection, perhaps it is not so surprising, as for the previous 15 years of my career I was no different.

When pushed, we can come up with some vague, incomplete, eclectic and aspirational statement. This often changes from week to week as we read about the latest leadership trend or observe what other leaders do.

But, in what other worthwhile part of our business life do we fail to set a goal and then expect to be successful?

Think about your organisation. No doubt you have a vision, mission, values, budgets, key performance indicators compliance reports- the list is endless.

Being clear about what we are trying to achieve permeates our business life, yet we don’t do it when it comes to one of the keys of our own individual effectiveness – our leadership style.

Whilst I am all for an organic approach to the complexities and ambiguities involved in being a leader, I believe we could all improve our performance if we had a clear goal in mind.

To quote Lewis Carroll, “One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter” (Carroll, 2016).

Defining your leadership style guides how you behave – what to do and what not to do.

Having something to aim for builds a sense of commitment to the role. Being clear about the sort of leader you want to be promotes a more consistent approach to the day-to-day issues you deal with.

Consistency then nurtures a feeling of trust within your team. Trust is the foundation for a high performing team.

If defining our leadership style is important, but not many of us do it – then we must ask why don’t we?

When I ask this question of the managers I coach and train, I get many responses, but common among them is “I don’t know where to start”.

Let me give you three questions that need to be answered to start the process of clearly defining your own leadership style.

Q1: - Why do you do what you do?

Popular business author Simon Sinek puts forward the premise that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Let’s use this concept as the opening question to get clarity around the sort of leader we want to be. We should resist the simple answer to this question of why…“because it’s part of my job description”. This is an outcome, not a reason for being a leader.

In a similar light, we can discard answers like, “to earn more money” or “to advance my career”… they are all outcomes not reasons. Dig deeper into your underlying motivations of what you enjoy about leadership and why you keep doing it.

Whilst working as a regional manager at a Big 4 bank I used the five whys approach to get to my underlying motivation for being a leader.

1. Why am I a regional manager? … to be a part of a successful team.

2. Why do I want to be a part of a successful team?... it promotes a positive workplace culture.

3. Why do I want to work in a positive workplace culture?... because it is enjoyable, fun and collaborative.

4. Why do I want to work in an enjoyable, fun, collaborative team?... these teams grow and improve.

5. Why do I want the team to grow and improve?... because I want to achieve my potential and help others achieve theirs.

Q2. What values set the boundaries for your behaviour?

There are many definitions of leadership, some are practical, some are philosophical, some are prescriptive, and some are directional.

Start to identify the values that are at the core of your style by reflecting on what resonates with you when others try to define what leadership is.

Here are some quotes to get you started.

“The process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” – Academic, Martin Chemers 

“Leadership is the art of influencing and directing people in such a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect and loyal cooperation in achieving common objectives.” – U.S. Air Force

“Leadership is an elusive concept, hard to describe and impossible to prescribe. It is more evident in its absence so that when leadership is needed, its lack is sorely felt.” – First Nations leader, Patrick Dodson 

“Leaders who fail to appreciate this fundamental precept of accountability must also fail to muster the profound commitment true leadership demands.” – Governor General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove 

“The yearning for strong leadership is more about the strength of purpose – clarity of vision – than merely about 'getting tough'.” – Social commentator, Hugh Mackay 

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – American 6th President, John Quincy Adams 

“The first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization...Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” – Consultant and author, Warren Bennis 

“As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honour and praise. The next, the people fear; the next, the people hate.” – Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tse 

Once you have started to think about how you define leadership, consider what other leaders value. Kouzes and Posner’s research into core values may help.

Business Consultant, Doug Watson FAIM

Business Consultant, Doug Watson FAIM

By interviewing 75,000 leaders over 30 years they have consistently identified the top four core values for the most admired leaders across the world as being honest, forward-looking, inspiring and competent.

Interestingly in Australia, their research shows another value consistently ranks highly… humility.

Finally, reflect upon your own predispositions.

Many of us have completed diagnostic tools aimed at defining our “personality”. What do these tell you about yourself? How does this shape you as a leader? Are you fast-paced or reflective? Are you a people-focused or task-focused person? How do you prioritise outcomes vs. process vs. others vs. yourself? You want your core values to mirror you as a person.

Going through these steps myself there are some recurring themes that emerge.

I like the concepts of achieving results, inspiration, not being noticed, setting a vision, being honest and a focus on others.

As a final check, match these core values to the corporate values of where you work. Make sure they fit and align with your immediate work environment.

If they don’t, ask yourself the question, am I working in the right organisation for me?

Q3. How are you going to measure your success?

There are many measures of success set for us as leaders… job descriptions, reward and recognition schemes, key performance indicators and leadership competency frameworks.

This is not what I am talking about here. What I want you to think about is how you will measure your success as a leader.

Think about the traits you want to replicate in your most admired leadership role model or the traits you want to avoid in the least admired leader you have experienced.

What would you like your team to say about you when you are not around? What would you like them to say on your farewell card when you leave the team?

For me, I’d like to be seen as someone who was able to balance caring for people, with a commitment to getting results. All while having a bit of fun along the way.

Bringing it all together… defining your leadership style

Now that you have answered these three key questions, combine your answers into a few sentences that capture the essence of your leadership style.

It may sound easy, but it's hard to get right. It takes time to get the right words, in the right order, with the right emphasis. Start with your first draft, then refine it over time until you are happy with the result.

Here is my first draft:

I want to be a leader that passionately communicates a clear vision for the team. I want to do this in a way that inspires the team and everyone in it to achieve their potential. I will do this by being honest, caring about the whole person and having some fun along the way.

Now you have an idea of the leadership style to which you aspire, reflect on where you are now.

Build a plan to leverage your strengths, improve on your weaknesses and bridge the gaps between the leader you are today and the leader you want to be in the future.

Share your plan with those around you and ask to be held accountable.

AIM WA offers a range of leadership and management courses to help you identify and develop your own leadership style. If you feel you could benefit from one-on-one coaching from an experienced practitioner, AIM WA can help. Make an enquiry today by calling 9383 8000.