The fuzzy gray ball of leadership

Graphic of three cartoon people in poses of confusion, standing and sitting on a sideways red question mark. Students in my workshops often ask hypothetical questions about leadership situations – questions to which the only possible answer is, “Well, it depends!”

Leadership is a fuzzy gray ball of uncertainty.

Or, to put it in somewhat more positive terms, it’s highly nuanced. Which is why, as I wrote last week, I consider formally-defined leadership styles to be functionally useless, and why I’m opposed to conversational scripts, so-called “blueprints” for change, and any other approach that tries to remove the nuance and create a sense of certainty about how to lead.

There is no certainty to be had. Senior leaders who are honest will agree that no two situations are the same, individual people continue to be individual (not cookie-cutter), and that they’ve learned to be thoughtful, to have conversations, and to be okay with making – and repairing – mistakes.

But how to teach leadership, then?

That’s a valid question, of course. If there are no certainties, and every situation is different, then how can we teach managers and leaders to become good at leading?

But this is the wrong question.

It arises from the model of teaching we have in grade school and even in many college and university classes: teach facts, teach rote thinking, teach “this is how you do it.” Not to go off on a tangent, but this is why we have people emerging into the workforce who lack critical thinking and strategic thinking skills.

Teach tools, coach practice

Those leadership styles? They’re actually toolsets, and as such can be useful. And of course there are many leadership skills and tools that, used from a situational perspective, are perfectly effective.

Just as no one picked up a hammer for the first time and made something amazing, we can’t expect fledgling leaders to pick up (learn) a tool and use it flawlessly.

The tools are simple. Using the tools is situational, nuanced, and needs supportive feedback for someone to learn and grow.


I teach workshops on leadership skills and 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!