Sensitive Leadership

December 4, 2013 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

As we gain more responsibility in the workplace, there comes a time when that new responsibility changes from ‘getting more complex tasks’ to ‘being in charge of others’. Whether or not we are prepared for it, there comes a time when we are asked to take on a leadership role.

For most of us, that transition to a leadership role doesn’t come with any reasonable guidance for how we should tackle our new responsibility. Without guidance, our approach to leadership is primarily driven by our experience with the leaders that have influenced our lives to this point: our parents and older siblings, community leaders we may have been exposed to, or our current and previous bosses at work. It is a pretty safe bet that their approach to leadership was driven in the same manner, though their past experience and the school of hard knocks. Conscious consideration of which leadership approach can be most effective for a given situation is extremely rare, and for most people I have worked with, the notion of there even being different styles of leadership to choose from isn’t even on the radar.

Without that conscious consideration, it can be no surprise that we often stumble and fall in our leadership role, especially when we are just starting out. If you’ve been raised by overbearing parents or a heavy-handed boss, that’s the style you will associate with leadership, and it’s the style you will tend to use yourself. Similarly, if you’ve been neglected at home or worked in an environment where you have been left to your own devices, that’s what leadership means to you.

If you’ve had some combination of the above, well, there’s a good chance you have been confused about this whole leadership thing, given those mixed messages. You may have come to the conclusion that one style was more effective than the other, but it is unlikely you connected the dots to see that one style worked better than the other because it better matched your needs in that particular situation. Instead, you probably concluded that one of those people setting examples was simply a better leader.

The most effective leaders are aware that there are different approaches to leadership that can be taken, and select their approach with a sensitivity to the needs of the people being led.

As an aside, if we take the term leadership and translate it to influencing others, it helps us see that this idea isn’t simply for someone leading subordinates in an organization or family, but applies anytime you are interested in influencing the actions and thoughts of others, regardless of the relative positions in the relationship. I can influence my mother in law, my son can influence me, I can influence a supplier, a client can influence me. In all situations, there are some approaches that are more effective than others, and conscious choice of that approach makes all the difference.

Think about your experience in a leadership role for a moment. There is a good chance that at least once you delegated some work to someone else only to be disappointed with the results.

Usually when this happens, we all tend to think first that the person that was supposed to do the work screwed up. In most instances it was probably possible in advance to either clarify the agreement on the work to be done to generate better results, or to come to the conclusion before the work starts that this really isn’t a task that should be delegated at all. In either case, it is really us as the delegator that screwed up, that has overreached in our expectations.

You see, in order to safely delegate a task to someone, they need to be in the highest state of readiness to do the work. They need a solid combination of willingness, ability to perform the task, and the confidence in that ability to get the job done. If even one of these characteristics is missing, delegation isn’t an appropriate leadership style to use at that point. They might need a deeper form of collaboration and engaged participation to do the work, or might simply have to be explicitly told exactly what needs to be done. Each of these is an adjustment to what might be a preferred style of leadership.

If we first consider the readiness of the person we are influencing, we can adjust our approach accordingly to get the results we desire. Unless we are always in the same sort of situation where the most appropriate leadership style happens to match the style we are most comfortable with (usually because of what we were exposed to in the past), our results might not be what we are looking for.

Rather than trying to figure out how the other person screwed up, look inward first to see if there are things you can change first. Lead with sensitivity. – JB

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