21st Century Leaders are Life-Long Learners

What makes an effective leadership style? Top-down leadership is increasingly ineffective, says recent research (learn more in Gail Rosenblum’s column published October 10 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune). Followership, autonomy, and collaboration can make for a happier workforce and better results.

Leaders who grow and change along with their teams are often successful leaders. But this isn’t easy. Leaders are used to leading with traditional authority.

Here’s how it works. The leader calls a team meeting and presents a problem to be solved. He or she asks for input and carefully listens to the team. Then the leader suggests a solution.  He acknowledges the feedback that agrees with his solution and makes clear why other feedback doesn’t work. So . . . what do you think of the solution, he asks? The team smiles; no one responds. “Great meeting,” says the leader. “We’ve come to a consensus.”

Not really. Silence doesn’t mean agreement. It probably means that responders don’t think their point of view will be heard by the leader, so why bother? The decision was made, and their voices really didn’t matter. They leave the room and complain behind closed doors. Not good.

Does this happen in your school or office? It happens anywhere.

I’ve learned from personal experience about different leadership styles. As an attorney and former legislator, I found that “persuasive” leadership was valued. Lead with a great idea, rally the troops around it, and successfully pass the idea into law or negotiate a winning settlement. Persuasive leaders can “sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” But even the most persuasive leaders can only accomplish so much—alone.

When I became an executive of a large nonprofit organization, I learned that “persuasive” leadership looked a lot like the meeting above. Frankly, it wasn’t effective. For better results, I had to learn a new kind of leadership, along with my team.

I learned that good team leaders value and encourage diverse points of view. They engage in “generous listening.” They provide autonomy, as long as team members are accountable to the common goal. The leader becomes a coach or guide to the team member and asks, “How can I support you in achieving your goals?”

This is very different than persuading people to join your team or follow your idea. This is about people feeling valued and trusted so they can follow their own ideas to accomplish the team’s common results.

The leader who leads change in any organization must first be able to lead change in herself. The more visible her personal growth efforts are to followers, the better. Followers will step up their own leadership and invest in their own personal growth. And the results will keep on growing.