What does an “effective leader” look like? Take a minute to note the images and words that come to your mind. Are effective leaders patient or impatient? Firm or flexible? Are their decisions quickly made or well-thought-out? If you were asked to draw a picture of an effective leader, what would it look like?
We all have a mental model of the effective leader, formed by the leaders we’ve seen in our own lives (whether good or bad), representations in popular culture, and the leadership characteristics that come most naturally to us.
The trouble with strengths-based leadership
Much contemporary leadership training takes a strengths-based approach, focused only on developing competencies that align with a leader’s natural talents. However, research by Jeffrey Sugerman, Mark Scullard, and Emma Wilhelm has shown that leaders who try to “outsource” the dimensions they find less natural will ultimately fail.
In The 8 Dimensions of Leadership, they write: “A one-dimensional leader, no matter how good he or she is at that one thing, can’t provide the kind of leadership that leads to innovation, social change, or business transformation.”
According to the Harvard Business Review article Strengths-Based Coaching Can Actually Weaken You, strengths can become toxic when overused:
“…even positive qualities will become toxic if they are overused or expressed in excess. For example, conscientiousness and attention to detail turn into counterproductive perfectionism and obsessiveness. Confidence becomes overconfidence and arrogance. Ambition turns into greed. And imagination into odd eccentricity.
Research shows that leaders are generally unaware of what their toxic behaviors are and that there is no shortage of competent leaders—individuals with clear strengths—who derail because of their inability to mitigate their toxic tendencies.”
Sugerman, Scullard, and Wilhelm identify the 8 dimensions of leadership as Inclusive, Humble, Deliberate, Resolute, Commanding, Pioneering, Energizing, and Affirming.
A one-dimensional leader, they say, often chooses an inadequate response, because they stay in “default mode” rather than finding the best response to the particular situation.
The multidimensional leader, on the other hand, knows that great leadership requires a wide range of competencies and relationship skills, and can choose the best response for the situation, even if it’s not the response that aligns with their first instinct.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Sasha: example of multidimensional leadership
A naturally resolute leader, Sasha was successfully heading up her department, where things were operating mostly in a business-as-usual state. But suddenly, a big change comes—merger, pandemic, implementing a new system, any number of things. Sasha doesn’t think to adjust her leadership style. She assumes what her team needs is for her to forge ahead with confidence, as she always has. This is the way I’ve always led, she thinks, and it’s gotten me this far.
Sasha is naturally analytical—good at separating facts from feelings. She is able to set aside her personal emotions about the change and identify a logical progression of steps that need to be taken. However, the individuals in her department—because they have a variety of natural mindsets of their own—are all experiencing the change in different ways. Some employees find Sasha’s level head and consistently high standards to be reassuring amid the turbulence. Others feel steamrolled, like their emotions about the change are not being treated as legitimate. How can she forge ahead as if everything is still the same?, they wonder.
Sasha’s natural tendencies as a leader—her strengths—do not include showing patience with people moving at a different pace, checking in on everyone’s well-being, seeking out and understanding different perspectives, listening to concerns with an open mind, or affirming the feelings of others. But these are the behaviors this situation calls for.
Choosing to act even a bit more like an affirming leader here could make the experience a completely different one for Sasha’s team. By stretching into the best leadership style for the situation, rather than only considering the one she automatically employs, Sasha can help get everyone back on board and ready to work together toward their goal.
Terrance: example of multidimensional leadership
Terrance is an energizing leader who is naturally gifted at big-picture thinking and loves giving positive feedback to his employees. When he speaks about a new project at a staff meeting, everyone gets excited about the possibilities. They leave the meeting feeling charged up and ready to get to work.
But… what does “getting to work on the project” actually mean? The employees have bought into Terrance’s vision and enthusiasm, but lack any concrete details. The day-to-day reality of their work—the space where they spend most of their time—is fuzzy. Because they aren’t clear on who is doing what, inefficiencies and redundancies are rife.
As the leader, Terrance is ultimately responsible for making sure the project runs smoothly. He needs to recognize why he’s falling short. It might be difficult for him to buckle down and focus on the nuts and bolts of the project’s execution. He may prefer to speak off the cuff instead of taking the time to distill and write up clear points of communication in a staff email.
If Terrance sticks only to his strengths, his team will flounder without anything concrete to latch on to. If he leads from his strengths but also assesses the situation and calls upon leadership styles less comfortable for him—taking inspiration from deliberate leaders—he’ll have a more satisfied team and a better result.
Leading beyond your strengths
Learning about your own leadership strengths and how they influence those around you is important—but it’s only one part of the work. You must also expand your perspective to learn about leadership methods that may, at first, seem counterintuitive to you.
Empathy is not one of Sasha’s strengths. Deliberate preparation is not one of Terrance’s strengths. That doesn’t mean they get a free pass to ignore them. They won’t feel as comfortable calling upon these dimensions, and they’ll likely have many moments of thinking Why can’t everyone just see it objectively, like I do? or Why does my team need me to micromanage them? But the more they practice reading the situation and what type of leader it calls for, the easier it will be to stretch into all dimensions, and not just stay in default mode.
You don’t have to become a totally different person or abandon the strengths that have always served you well. In this interview with the 8 Dimensions of Leadership authors in Chief Learning Officer magazine, Emma Wilhelm says, “We’re not asking people to make superhuman changes in their personality. It’s very small changes that make such a big difference.”
The days of idolizing the “my way or the highway” leader are—thankfully—waning in most sectors. Today’s experts agree that effective leaders are able to call upon a range of behaviors and adapt to their changing situations.
As the 8 Dimensions of Leadership reminds us, “Change is inevitable. What works for you as a leader today may not work next year.” If you can develop your “multidimensional leadership muscles,” you’ll be able to remain a relevant and effective leader whatever changes are thrown your way.