A while ago I was asked the following at a conference: "I’ve had a mentor suggest that given my style is very direct to learn how to hone that into its most effective form. Is this a good idea?" My answer was not a direct yes/no because there are several things to consider.
First, we need to have a good definition of leadership. I’ve posted this in the past, but my definition is:
Next we need to consider leadership styles. Finding a leadership style can be challenging, especially if you are just emerging from being an individual contributor, but even long-time leaders struggle with finding the right style. A leadership style should balance: adapting to what’s most comfortable for you, close alignment with your principles (which isn’t always the most comfortable!), and being the most effective with the people you lead. This can be a juggling act that has factors that can seem at odds with each other.
We can categorize leadership styles into three broad categories: Boss, Mentor, Servant.
The Boss style tends to be more authoritarian: telling people what to do and how to do it, micromanaging, and things of that nature. On the positive side, there is often a lot of clarity with the boss type.
The Mentor style tends to be more one of coaching: providing guidance and teaching as a way of instruction. At its worst, it can still have an underlying message of “there’s one way to do this - my way” and that is what needs to be taught.
The Servant style tends to be more one of empowering and enabling: setting goals with your team members, letting them reach success through their own means, and removing barriers to their success. At its worst, this style can be too hands off or mistaken for simply doing whatever your team members want you to do.
While I am a huge proponent of the notions of servant leadership, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes it’s not enough to set goals and let people run. Sometimes people need to be taught, and sometimes people need to be told what to do. The challenge is knowing when each is needed. I use the following principle to help guide:
Hopefully you'll find that a simple mantra to remember the tools in that order. Meaning, we should focus first on enabling people - making the desired outcomes clear along with any constraints and context and give them the autonomy to decide. If that isn’t working we should teach people how to reach those outcomes, and if they aren’t able to pick up on the learning we need to tell them what to do and how to do it.
So to bring it all together, I look at that initial question as “will being very direct enable me to influence individuals to effectively deliver durable results?” The answer is “yes, but it depends on what you’re being direct about.” Your first priority as leader is to enable, in which case you should be direct about the outcomes they need to achieve (e.g. “handle 100,000 transactions per minute”). If that doesn't work, you switch to mentoring / teaching, where you should be direct about what they should do to reach those outcomes (e.g. “Think about elasticity and making sure you don’t lose any of the requests”). And when that doesn't work, you have to tell - to be direct about how they should reach those outcomes (e.g. “implement a queue and multiple processing servers”).
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.