Leadership “styles” are bunk

I’m going to get pushback on thisImage of six yellow sticky notes with the words "Be the voice not the echo.", but I stand by it: so-called “leadership styles” are bunk.

Let’s just start here: go Google “leadership styles.”

How many did you find?

How consistent were they from one list to the next?

You see my point. Every leadership website has a different number, ranging from four on up to – I think the highest I’ve seen is 11. And there’s only some commonality in names; in genereal, they’re not named the same, nor defined the same.

There’s only one leadership style I can get behind: yours.

Okay, I’ll add one more, but it’s functionally the same thing: situational.

It’s pretty obvious what “situational” leadership is, right? How you lead depends on the person or team you’re interacting with, the specific set of circumstances you’re dealing with, and who you are as a leader: your style.

Trying to adopt one of those myriad styles listed on all those leadership development websites just means trying to fit yourself into a box that won’t match who you are. Depending on the extent of the mismatch, it will feel more or less awkward, to you and to the people you lead. It will almost certainly create problems, from uncomfortable encounters to communication mistakes and more. And it will make you feel, to a greater or lesser extent, like you’re not “doing it right.” Hello, imposter syndrome!

Your leadership style is made up of three things

Thing One: who you are at your core

These are the things that just make you, you.

They’re not values (that’s the second thing). They’re how you behave no matter what. This is your base operating system. You don’t have to think about these things; they just are.

For instance, I’m what I tend to call pathologically organized. I can’t not be organized; it’s almost literally physically painful. People give me credit for it, but I can’t accept that. Organized is just who and how I am. I don’t have to make the slightest effort to stay organized; I would have to make a significant effort to be disorganized.

Thing Two: your values

As I define values (and there are probably as many ways to define them as there are definitions of leadership style!), these are qualities that are deeply important to you, but aren’t instinctive; you have to put in some effort and hold yourself accountable.

One of my values is non-judgment. I hold it as profoundly important to me, but that doesn’t mean I always manage to practice it. It takes work and care to catch myself when I’m about to slip, and then self-forgiveness when I do slip.

Thing Three: your philosophy of leadership (and life)

What do you believe about leadership and how leadership works at its best?

How do you differentiate “leadership” from “management”?

What would you like your team to say about you as a leader? Is there something you’ve already heard them say about you, and did you like it?

Sometimes, the things people say aren’t necessarily meant as a compliment, but we can choose to take them as such. I’ve been called a “badass” – once as a compliment and once definitely not! I’ve been told I “don’t suffer fools gladly,” which also was not intended as a compliment, but I choose to take it as one. And I’ve been told I’m decisive, which was definitely a compliment.

My philosophy of leadership is that, at its best, it helps people become more than they thought they could, in ways that matter to each of them individually.

In the end …

Yes, leadership is situational, and if you’re going to follow a “style,” that’s the one to follow.

But please always remember that you are part of all those situations. And who you are will always, without question, have an impact on whatever the situation may be.

If you know those three things – who you are at your core, your values, and your philosophy – then you have what you need to decide how to handle any given situation. Yes, it takes learning and practice – the capacity for leadership is something we all develop over time.

But then all those other leadership “styles,” which are more accurately aspects or skills of leadership, are yours to pick and choose from out of your leadership toolbox.


I teach workshops on personal leadership style development for your leaders and managers. Curious? Drop me a note through my contact form and we’ll set a time to talk!