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Sep 23, 2021

We all have a particular style of leading. Some leaders push for maximal effort, while others are more concerned with employees’ happiness. Some prioritize discipline and process, while other leaders employ a more freewheeling style.  

But what’s universal is that every style of leadership has a weakness. Thus, the key to great leadership isn’t perfection but rather candidly recognizing and mitigating our flaws.

With data from the more than 1 million people who’ve taken the “What’s Your Leadership Style?” test, we know that there are four primary leadership styles: Diplomats, Pragmatists, Stewards, and Idealists. While each approach has wonderful strengths and optimal environments, each one has flaws. The good news is that if we’re honest with ourselves, we can quickly alleviate many of those potential problems.

Fixing the Diplomat’s Potential Flaw

Diplomats are the nice leaders; they prize interpersonal harmony, are typically kind and social, and often have deep personal bonds with their employees. The potential weakness for Diplomats is being too soft, accommodating, or forgiving.

One common scenario when this leader’s in charge is meetings that last far too long or get way off-topic. It’s not that this leader lacks discipline; instead, they’re typically trying to ensure that every voice gets heard and that nobody’s publicly chastised for rambling or straying off-topic.

To correct this, the Diplomat simply needs to put someone else in charge of the timing and agenda of their meetings. If some honest self-reflection reveals that you’re a bit too accommodating in your meetings, pick a trusted employee with a bit less empathy and assign them the task of saying “next topic” when it’s time to move on. Similarly, ask them to call out “off-topic” when the conversation wanders.

Fixing the Steward’s Potential Flaw

Stewards are the deliberate leaders; they value rules, processes, and step-by-step plans. This careful approach can be enormously comforting, but it can also cause slow decision-making. Sometimes speed matters, and that may challenge this leader’s natural tendencies.

Stewards can tackle this, however, by minimizing the time they’re allowed to deliberate. For example, they could tell an employee, “I’d like the day to think about it, but if I haven’t given you a decision by 5 p.m., then you choose whichever option you think is best.” Alternatively, the leader could announce at the start of a meeting that, “We’ll discuss this for 30 minutes maximum, and after that, we’re taking a vote.”

Fixing the Pragmatist’s Potential Flaw

Pragmatists are the most intense leaders; they’re driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else. The risk, of course, is that for people who don’t have the same ambition or competitiveness, this style can lead to burnout.

Tempering this potential flaw takes a bit more effort, but it’s no more complicated than the other styles. Pragmatists must publish, and adhere to, a monthly schedule of one-on-one employee motivation meetings. During those meetings, in addition to whatever else gets discussed, the leader must ask the employee to “Tell me about a time in the past month when you felt frustrated or demotivated or burned out.”

The only truly difficult part of this activity is that the leader cannot argue with the employee. After the employee shares their frustrations, the leader has to say something like, “I really appreciate you sharing that with me. Let’s talk about some ways we can work on that together.”

Fixing the Idealist’s Potential Flaw

Idealists are the growth-minded leaders; they want everyone to learn, grow, and develop creative ideas, and they often do more asking than telling. While it might not seem like this style has a flaw, the reality is that sometimes people want answers and not a learning moment.

Imagine an employee new to their job trying to master a complicated system. They can barely find the restrooms in this building, let alone understand the rationale behind the architecture of the system. In this case, asking them, “Why do you think we designed it this way?” will be met with befuddlement or even irritation. It takes a modicum of expertise before we can start probing deeper, making intuitive leaps, etc.

Idealists can overcome this by simply saying something like, “There’s a lot to learn about why this thing works, and I think you’d enjoy learning about it and where we’re going next. But maybe for the moment, you’d rather just focus on the how and not the why. Which would you prefer right now?”

The point of this isn’t to catalog every potential leadership weakness but rather to show how quickly we can mitigate many flaws. We’ve all got our preferred style of leadership, and as long as we recognize that every approach has some downsides, we can take the necessary steps to fix them. Whether we do it ourselves or enlist our colleagues, a majority of leadership pitfalls can be avoided with a healthy dose of self-awareness.

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