Executives Like a Different Style of Leadership Than Everyone Else (and It’s Causing Problems)

What’s your ideal style of leader? Someone who’s driven, competitive, and enjoys smashing through obstacles? Or someone who prizes interpersonal harmony? Maybe a leader who values rules, process, and cooperation? Or one who enjoys learning and growing?

While it strikes many that there is (or should be) an obvious right answer, the truth is that different people prize different styles of leadership.

The Pragmatic Preference

More than one million people have taken the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” and new data reveals that your level in an organization’s hierarchy will heavily influence your preferred style of leadership.

The Pragmatist style of leader is one who has high standards. Pragmatists expect themselves and their employees to meet those standards. They’re driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else.

While it’s easy to view this style as too harsh, unforgiving, and stressful, the reality is that a great many legendary executives employ this approach. From Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk to the late Steve Jobs and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this leadership approach has many fans in the executive suite. 

Based on data from the leadership styles test, we know that 26% of senior executives say that this is the style of their ideal leader. Amongst sales executives, 35% pick this as their ideal leadership style, and for operations executives, 30% choose this as the style of their ideal leader.

The Pragmatist Problem

But here’s the big challenge for those of us working in the talent management space: Though a quarter of executives love this leadership style, only 16% of frontline employees prefer this approach. This means that many executives at your company probably want you to foster a leadership style that many of your frontline employees are going to seriously dislike.

Further exacerbating this challenge is that many of the executives who love this style believe (perhaps correctly) that working for a hard-charging Pragmatist was a major factor in their own management career success. So not only do you have to convince these executives that not everyone enjoys this approach, but you’ve also got to persuade them that their career path is not the only road to success.

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The Burden of Burnout

Ironically, the current economy and crisis in employee burnout may provide just the evidence you need to convince executives to try a different leadership approach. Currently, attracting and retaining top talent ranks at, or near, the top of executives’ concerns. For instance, the study “Employee Burnout in 2021 discovered that 71% of leaders expect that high performers are going to quit because of employee burnout.

Even the most diehard devotees of the Pragmatist leadership style recognize that the risk of burnout is higher with this approach than any other. This gives you, the talent management leader, the opportunity to pitch top executives on the idea of emphasizing a less intense and more flexible leadership approach, at least in the near term.  

One simple place to start would be giving leaders training on how to reduce employee burnout. In the aforementioned study, we learned that only 19% of leaders feel that they really know how to reduce employee burnout. Training leaders on burnout reduction will force them to develop greater empathy, emotional awareness, and listening skills. Leaders will also learn how to foster employees’ emotional wellness through optimism, resilience, and more. 

Executives could also get serious about requiring one-on-one conversations between leaders and employees.  While nearly every company says it requires monthly or quarterly one-on-one coaching conversations, the reality is that these conversations can often be skipped with little accountability. And even when they do occur, there are plenty of employees who experience these conversations more as a unidirectional performance review than as a coaching or mentoring dialogue.

I’m not suggesting that there’s never a time to employ a hard-charging Pragmatist style of leadership. In late 2021, however, companies are suffering from burnout and employee turnover far more frequently than they’re suffering from a lack of intensity and ambition. And before human resources or talent management executives can fundamentally correct burnout and turnover, you’ll have to convince your company’s executives to try a different style of leading.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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