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Leadership has dramatically shifted from the time when many leaders first entered the working world. Back then a boss was a boss. Today, a boss is supposed to be a booster, or a coach, or a facilitator.

But a team of academics who looked at modern leadership argue the requirements are far more complicated than just jettisoning the old approach for the emerging collaborative replacement. In fact, top-down leadership helped many organizations through aspects of the pandemic. It’s a matter of recognizing tensions exist between what leaders must provide in different situations.

“Our research, conducted with more than 1,000 managers across the globe, suggests that what’s out-of-date is the idea that a leader should adopt a fixed leadership style that’s agnostic to the specific context in which he or she is operating. A single approach to leadership, whether traditional or emerging, is not going to meet the myriad of challenges that today’s leaders face,” Jennifer Jordan and Michael Wade, professors at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Tomoko Yokoi, a researcher at that institution, write in Harvard Business Review.

That brings to mind the situational leadership approach popularized by leadership expert Ken Blanchard and author Paul Hersey, in which a manager’s approach depends on the maturity and knowledge of the individuals they are working with. With an experienced subordinate the leader may provide only minimal guidance, while with a newbie, close supervision is essential.

Similarly, the academics stress that rather than perfecting a “leadership sweet spot,” a leader needs to develop and broaden their “leadership sweet range.” The wider this range becomes, the more effective the leader will be, thanks to that versatility.

Self-awareness is obviously critical, but so is situational awareness. In a world often characterized by disruption for organizations, leaders must be able to interpret their environment, understanding the implications it has for the task at hand. They also need to develop cognitive empathy, an awareness of the emotions of the people around them.

“If you are fortunate, the most appropriate behaviour in a given situation falls within your leadership sweet range. In this case, the action is relatively straightforward. However, if the situation calls for a behaviour beyond your range, then the gap will need to be bridged,” they write.

You can’t suddenly transform yourself. But they note you can broaden your range by practising micro-behaviours, such as small improvements to listen more if you tend to tune out others or make decisions more quickly if your perfectionist impulse is strong. Seek out role models who possess talents you lack; watch them, and learn. Be willing to rely on others when their style better fits the situation.

Above all, keep in mind that one default leadership style – no matter how adept you are at it – can be detrimental if not derail your career. Indeed, if you are particularly adept at it, you may rely too much on that approach, hindering your leadership.

Victoria-based leadership strategist Dan Pontefract opened his book Lead Care Win by highlighting the importance of leaders being relatable. That seems obvious, but it builds the trust and connection that applies to a lot of situations, yet is often missing. “Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you had an honest exchange with another person, one that was so moving it might have changed your life (let alone theirs)?” he writes.

He suggests you also ask yourself: Do I exhibit behaviours where I come across as an uncaring person? Do I pretend to be someone I am not? Do I understand the impact of being disconnected from my work and my team? Have I invested time in getting to know others as human beings? When I make a mistake, do I ignore it, or cover it up, or place blame elsewhere?

He puts a premium on respecting others – being relatable is rooted in civility. He says you need to be patient when making a request but pro-active when following up. Genuinely care in all your interactions.

Leadership coach Lolly Daskal brings forward an intriguing concept when she says the best leaders give their time to others. That can seem counterintuitive, because we’re all pressed for time and leaders in particular are supposed to protect their calendar zealously. But people are the most important aspect of your operation and you will benefit by investing time on them.

That time will be for teachable moments and opportunities for coaching and development. It will be for regular one-on-one meetings to share ideas. It will be caring time, supportive time and appreciative time. “Get smart about how you invest your time, and remember that the best investment is giving that time to others,” she writes on her blog.

Give them time for co-creation as well. David Weitzner, an assistant professor of administrative studies at York University, says it’s time for business, political and organizational leaders to give up on the concept of management. “Workers today don’t want to be managed, even benevolently. They want to be partners in co-creation, where all members are empowered to bring their whole selves to the organization regardless of hierarchies,” he writes on The Conversation. “Co-create or manage, because you cannot do both.”

Well, maybe you can do both. Maybe you must. Our starting point was to be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. The times are complex. We must be multi-faceted, situational and versatile in response, building our skills – relatability, operating as a time giver, co-creationist, amongst them – so our leadership sweet range is enhanced.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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