Leading Wisely: What's the Leadership Philosophy That You Follow?


When it comes to leadership, there is no single right way to operate.

I had a boss a number of years ago who tried to tell me that I wasn't a leader. My response? "Oh, I'm a leader -- I'm just not your kind of a leader."

My point was this: Leadership, like people, comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and no one way is the right way.

Not all leaders are like George Patton

This long ago boss who challenged my ability to lead people thought that you weren't really a leader unless you led like George Patton, who jumped up on the desk and shouted for everyone else to follow you.

Well, as much as I admire the leadership of George Patton, his style only worked in a specific instance and for a fixed period of time. In fact, his leadership style damn near torpedoed his career -- and his fame -- before it even really got started.

The leadership style I possess is more low-key and sustainable than what my former boss was used to, but that doesn't mean it's not effective.

This all came back to me while reading this recent Corner Office column in The New York Times, because it was with Carter Murray, worldwide CEO of the advertising agency FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding), and it got into the issue of leadership styles of bosses, and the challenge for employees to put up with that.

retention carrot

Two styles of leadership

Here's what Carter Murray said when asked about "what people should do when they feel as if they're stuck with a bad boss:"

Thirty years ago, when people stayed in one company, maybe they felt they didn’t have a choice. But today, with the fluidity of the marketplace, you do have that choice. You have a lot more power to understand your options than you did before. You want to work for people you can relate to and be inspired by, and believe in.

I think leadership is fundamentally changing. There are two schools of leadership.

There is one style, which is you’re going to come work for me, and I’m going to pay you this, and I’m going to judge you. I’ll decide your bonus, and I’ll decide when you’re ready to be promoted.

There is another (style) where you say to someone, “Look, I think you’re amazing, incredibly talented and you can do even more than you think in your wildest dreams. And I’m not going to manage you to do that. You will determine that yourself. What I can promise you is I’ll create a culture where that happens.”

The challenge I’ve learned with that type of leadership is you’ve got to hire triple-A talent, and you need to have even stronger checks and balances in the cultural infrastructure.

There are a great many styles of leadership out there

My take: I don't agree with Carter Murray's description of two styles of leadership, because he makes it sound like these are the only two styles utilized by leaders and managers. The fact of the matter is that there are many different styles that smart leaders can embrace, and the very best leaders are the ones who assess the situation at hand and then match the leadership style that works best with that situation.

Don Shula, the great Miami Dolphins football coach, was famous for completely changing his coaching approach when his mix of talent changed and called for it. While many coaches would try to stick with their long-time philosophy and force for the talent into it, Shula would size up the strengths of his talent and then adjust his system to play to those strengths.

Although I like Carter Murray's notion that some people need to be challenged to push themselves to higher levels, that is simply one approach that will only work in certain situations with certain types of people. But to say that there are only "two schools of leadership" and that it is either one or the other is foolish and short-sighted because leadership is a lot more complex than that.

In fact, Murray's approach to leadership reminds me of that boss I had so long ago who told me I wasn't a leader because I didn't fit some cookie-cutter approach he had to leadership. I thought it was dumb then, and it is no less dumb now when you read about it in The New York Times.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, and it takes all sorts of approaches. There is no one right way, or best way, to lead people, and if someone tries to tell you there is, well, it's a good clue they really don't know all that much about leadership at all.