Back when I started my career (insert Dark Ages joke here), we were always taught that leaders were “strong,” not just in business but in society overall¬—family, religion, politics. However, as I moved through my career, I was fortunate to work with many of what I would consider great leaders (and just as many awful leaders, but that’s for another time.) So gradually, my definition of a great leader slowly evolved. And it wasn’t just me. Many respected authors and researchers began to define strong leaders according to some similar characteristics.
Recently, I’ve seen a lot of writings about “gentle leadership.” Researchers and leadership authors describe a different set of characteristics for this gentle leader:
Both of these lists lean dangerously toward stereotypes, in my humble opinion. Taking a page from the great leaders I have worked with, I believe the best leaders possess many or all of these characteristics in combination. They simply become more acute given the situation. Unlike many researchers and authors, I also do not believe great leaders are hard-wired, or born with these talents. We’ve seen too many of our clients actually learn the skills needed to provide strong leadership. These traits can be taught.
Interestingly enough, the trend we’ve seen recently when we perform our initial analysis of a company or organization is a demand, from the employees, for leaders who are strong vs. gentle. Based on our follow-ups, we’ve discovered this is most often because of the employees’ changed expectations in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.
Employees need their leaders to 1) reduce their uncertainty and 2) to help them feel as if they are not moving backwards or standing in one place.
When faced with uncertainty, employees will simply fill in the blanks. And the data they usually fill in is most likely highly inaccurate. So in these circumstances, they feel more urgency for a leader who “takes charge,” who offers clarity about the tasks that need to be completed, and who makes quick decisions. However, these characteristics tend to manifest as extremes in some leaders when the going gets tough, creating employee frustration about their lack of ability to provide input and participate in positive outcomes.
In our experience, we’ve seen a more gentle leadership approach—punctuated with the occasional “strong leadership” qualities—tend to create a culture that produces more sustainable and consistent outcomes. For example, the model we often suggest is a strong leadership at the beginning of organizational initiatives, followed with more gentle tactics as progress is made. It can be challenging to implement, but with training and practical exercises, we’ve seen it create strong, rather than gentle, results.