When we get negative feedback at work, there can be a first moment of resistance, a recoil against the feedback:
- “That’s not me. That’s not who I am.”
- “I can’t lead like that.”
- “It doesn’t feel authentic.”
- “I don’t have the [confidence/wisdom/courage/voice/xxx] to be like that.”
Through the years, I’ve worked with many people who have been seeking that perfect leadership style, aura, or presence. In the corporate world, where we’re used to seeing specific descriptions of performance metrics, job expectations, and clear behaviors to attain, it can be really frustrating to get feedback that our leadership style isn’t right. It’s hard to take action on that feedback. Even without that feedback, we can feel that everyone else around us has this mysterious leadership quality that we are lacking.
Let me tell you a secret—there’s no magic secret to leadership.
Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. Leadership is not set in stone. It continually evolves as we move through our different contexts and experiences. It changes as we work with leaders we admire and leaders we dislike—we choose which traits to emulate or discard. How you show up as a leader is similar to the product development process or scientific method: you experiment with a number of different leadership lenses, and you vary them depending on situation & context. Keep the ones that work for you; discard the ones that don’t.
Power and Attractiveness
This Harvard Business Review article on How to Develop Your Leadership Style defines leadership style as “what you do, how often, and when.” They proceed to analyze the markers commonly associated with leadership in the workplace and break them down into 2 categories — power and attractiveness. The power markers are the prototypically masculine traits of confidence and competence, and can also be associated with arrogance and abrasiveness. In comparison, the attractiveness markers are more prototypically feminine including approachability, agreeableness, and also submissiveness.
My leadership has tended to land closer to power than attractiveness. It’s been the most consistent way I’ve expressed myself in a professional setting. However, the most experienced leaders don’t land in one or the other category. They practice range—the ability to switch their leadership lens from power to attractiveness depending on context.
When I first managed teams, I was in my mid 20s. I was simultaneously insecure and ambitious. I adopted a command-and-control style of leadership that was predominantly in the power range. I used this one-dimensional leadership when interacting upwards to my bosses and downwards to the people who reported to me. The only times I exhibited attractiveness markers was to my peers as we struggled through first-time management together. As I transitioned into design firms I discovered that this power style of leadership was crucial in my expert Creative Director role to pitch our brilliant innovations to clients. It wasn’t until I left these environments and moved into startups and then later Facebook that I learned to build more relationships and consensus to ship products at scale using the lens of attractiveness.
A common mistake new managers make is to adopt attractiveness markers while managing up—classic “kissing up”— and power markers while managing down to their team. Yet the most successful leaders in fast-paced tech companies with autonomous employees do the opposite—show your competence by using power markers upwards and demonstrate servant leadership by using attractiveness markers when working with your team.
Experiment with range in your leadership lens by identifying behaviors, phrases, or emotions of power and attractiveness that feel natural to you. For example, because I was seeking to stretch my range into more attractiveness markers, I would try:
- Never being the first person to speak or ask questions in a room. Instead, I started with listening. From there, I would summarize the positions and build upon them with questions for others. I’d often start with the phase: “I’m curious about…”
- I noticed that I interrupted others a lot. As a woman in tech, this had been my coping mechanism to jump in to get a word in the conversation. Instead, I yielded to others, and amplified voices of other women and minorities. If two of us jumped in at the same time, I would make an intentional choice to defer or speak depending on how vocal the other person was.
- I sought to build trust and relationships with new colleagues via 1–1s, walks, and coffee chats to better understand where they were coming from before diving into work discussions.
Try making your own cheat-sheet of behaviors to try. The most important thing is to be aware of power vs attractiveness and experiment with when to play up or play down each marker.
1–1 and Groups
A separate lens on leadership is to examine how you typically show up in 1–1 meetings versus groups. We tend to be the most comfortable in a 1–1 situation and given that there are only 2 people in the conversation, we have more ability to direct the content, the emotional resonance, and the overall rhythm. Some things to notice in a 1–1 dynamic:
- Are you more comfortable listening or speaking?
- How do you show up when the other person is higher power vs lower power?
- What do you like best about your 1–1 presence? What would you like to change about it?
Now, take these same questions and apply them to a group format. It’s best to pick a 6–8 person mid-size group where there’s the group size is intimate enough that you can shift between participation and consumption.
Experiment with shifting your typical behaviors in 1–1 and apply them to a group setting, or vice versa. Notice the impact on yourself, and on others around you. Ask for feedback.
Professional and Personal
One last lens to play with is to look at how you show up in your professional life vs your personal life. We’ve been talking a lot about work leadership, yet you also play a leadership role in many personal contexts—as a parent, a friend, a sibling, a romantic partner, or a son or daughter. Your leadership can simply be how you describe yourself or how others describe you in these roles. For example, while I show up as strong, direct, courageous and compassionate in a professional setting, as a parent I’m more silly, playful and directive. As a romantic partner, I am more deferential and flexible, yet also demanding. As a friend, I can be crass and competitive.
Think about how you show up in all your personal contexts and experiment with how you might add one of those flavors to a professional context. What would it look like if you added more play or humor to a work meeting? At best you may find some new range to play with professionally, and at worst, you’ve shown a different, more vulnerable aspect of you to colleagues. Vulnerability always builds trust.
You already have a way that you lead professionally. It’s a mixture of your personality (who you are) and the behaviors, phrases, and ways that you show up at work. And, every single day, you can choose to experiment with different leadership lenses. Try some new ones on, and keep the ones that you like. Your leadership will continually change, so be intentional about the lenses you pick.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.