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Oct 24, 2022

Every leader has a style.

Whether they like to give direct orders or vague guidance; value competitiveness or collaboration; or heed feelings or logic, every leader has an approach that feels most natural to them.

But notwithstanding our predispositions, the most important lesson for leaders is that their preferences are not as important as the needs of their employees and the organization as a whole.

In other words, it’s not about you.

More than one million leaders worldwide have taken the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” and a staggering observation is that roughly three-quarters of leaders employ a different style than the one their employees really want.

For example, more than 60% of leaders adopt a style focused on interpersonal harmony and forging personal bonds with their employees. But, only around a fifth (19%), of employees consider that approach their ideal style of leadership.

By contrast, about half of employees want a leader who emphasizes learning, growth, and creativity, yet only about 9% of leaders demonstrate that style.

The glaring mismatch

This glaring mismatch between what employees want and what leaders deliver helps explain the current state of the workforce – everything from the paltry number of employees who feel like their leader helps them grow, to the high rates of employee burnout we see in the economy.

So what must leaders/HR professionals try and do to close this gap?

To identify what your team needs right now, I say ask each of your employees one important question: “One of my goals is to improve my leadership approach, and to that end, what’s one thing that I could do differently to be a better leader to you specifically?”

Yes, it’s brave. And it requires leaders to show some vulnerability, but the fact is most leaders just don’t know the extent to which their natural leadership approach is mismatched, or out-of-sync with, the needs of their employees. And while leadership assessments can help reveal problems, they’re far more expensive and time-consuming than simply asking employees directly.

Meeting corporate needs too

Meeting employees’ needs isn’t the only factor for which leaders need to account; the organization also has its own needs and goals.

For example: Imagine that your company has recently experienced a surge in quality problems, process breakdowns, and the like. In many cases, this isn’t a problem that calls for more interpersonal harmony or even creativity; it’s often a cry for more structure and directiveness. While only about 12% of employees describe that rules and process-oriented leader as their ideal, this may be a situation where greater compliance is exactly what’s needed.

If a company’s strategy has grown stale and its workforce has become complacent, this may signal a need for a leader with high standards and even a dose of competitiveness. Only 18% of employees say this is their ideal leadership approach, but it may be just what the doctor ordered to shake the company out of its doldrums.

For leaders to adjust the way they approach and meet the organization’s needs, they must ask themselves a question too: “Given my current management goals (e.g., increasing productivity, reducing turnover, eliminating defects, etc.), do I need to meet my employees’ emotional needs, pursue more audacious goals, emphasize formal procedures and rules, or challenge employees to learn new skills?”

That quick question, with a dash of honest self-reflection, will help many figure out the extent to which their leadership style guarantees the successful achievement of their goals.

I repeat: It’s not about you

The most successful leaders accept that it’s not all about them. Far too much leadership training focuses on leaning into leaders’ preferences. But not enough is devoted to recognizing the needs of both employees and their organizations.

There are times when a leader’s preferred style, employees’ needs, and the organization’s goals are perfectly aligned. But that’s a fantastic, albeit rare, circumstance. So much of the time leaders will need to adapt.

Some leadership approaches are more effective for retaining employees, while others are more effective when employees are making simple mistakes.

Some styles work better when a company needs a dose of ambition, while others are more suited to growing and developing employees.

The task of a leader (or developer of leaders) is to assess both employees’ and the company’s needs and adjust accordingly.