What’s Your Leadership Style?

There are many dimensions to building a healthy, thriving organization but the end result is that people feel engaged and committed to a common goal. Healthy organizations are those in which people feel safe to talk things out, to exchange ideas. There’s nothing to divert them from getting their work done, and even though things change all the time, they trust their leaders because they see rhyme and reason to what happens. To build that capability into your company, you have to put in the time, thought, and effort to get there.

When you’re the founder, people watch you, mirror you, and follow your lead. As the CEO, your suggestions are interpreted as orders. You think you’re just brainstorming, but they hear directives. You think you’re whispering, but they hear shouting. When you say something it’s like throwing a rock into a pond and watching the ripples. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg would say something and the next day it would be on the walls.

Before we get into how to build yourself as a CEO, a foundational question you should ask yourself is whether you really want to be CEO. Many people think that founders make the best CEOs because they have the vision and the drive necessary to inspire employees and investors and keep them marching in the same direction. But you, you the founder, should reflect on whether you want to keep doing the job of CEO as your company grows. You’ll be required to stretch yourself, to learn rapidly, and to recover from the many mistakes you’ll inevitably make. All the while you’ll be moving further away from your area of expertise (say, product, design, or engineering) and closer to the amorphous, frustrating role of leading people. It’s not for everybody.

There have been multiple attempts to define different styles of leadership, and they are generally differentiated by how leaders influence people and communicate. (If you’re interested, you can research leadership styles online. I personally have spent days and days getting to the bottom of this topic.) But no matter which style resonates most for you, your leadership involves guiding your people at your company. Choosing the right style for the right place and the right time with the right people requires situational sensitivity, and that’s fundamental to effective leadership.

I’ve seen all the styles at play in different companies, and different styles at play within the same company. I’ve seen all of them be effective at certain times and places, and I’ve seen each of them sail the ship onto the rocks when used at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Highly directive leadership could be like a dictatorship and perhaps should not always be your first move, especially with more senior people. But if you’re the one coordinating a response plan for a crisis at your company it may be the right tool. Supportive leadership—letting people do their own thing—sounds great, but then there’s an Ivan, who takes it too far. If the leader doesn’t step in to mediate conflict and take responsibility for defining direction, it’s a food fight. Coaching is something every leader should do, but if you try to merely ask great questions to guide a junior employee to the answer, she simply won’t have the experience to follow your lead. She’ll get frustrated and so will you.

You’ll probably lean toward one style or the other, but you also need to beware of using only your natural swing when another style would work better. Good leaders use a mix of these styles—at the right time and in the right place. Every founder/CEO needs to inspire her team with a vision of what the company can be—to make sure the music in her head plays the same as the music in their heads. But those people are all different from each other and that means they need something different from you, depending on who they are and depending on the situation. The work is in you—to get better and better at figuring that out on the fly.