What sort of leader do they expect me to be? (Part 1 of 2)

There are a lot of expectations around the role of a leader these days. If you look at the business shelves in any bookshop, you’ll see what I mean. From the spines, there’s a general holler to be this kind of leader! Do this! Lead your team well! Lead your company well! Lead in a way that is authentic to you! Oh, and while you’re at it, be mindful and compassionate and existential and agile and dignified and open and ethical and tactical and strategy and empathic and data-driven and…(she runs out of breath).


Despite many of them claiming there’s only one way to lead, evidence suggests that’s not the case. We have different preferences as to how we like to lead, and be led. Company and team cultures will lead to different preferences in leadership style, too. This makes it very hard to find one leadership style that suits everyone – yourself, your team, your company. So what can you do to figure out a way to lead that will suit everyone?

(This article is 1 of 2. This article talks about how to work out what is expected of you and identify any clashes; in next month’s post I’ll help you figure out what to do about those clashes).

Work out who is in your Leadership Impact Circle

All leaders have a Leadership Impact Circle, made up of everyone affected by their work as a leader. The first step in working out how best to lead is identifying who is in that circle. It’s likely to include your team; your manager/s; your customers; your peers; other organisational functions you work with regularly; and any stakeholders in the wider world. Draw it out, with the people who you impact most with your leadership at the centre, and going outwards to those you only impact a little.

A typical Leadership Impact Circle might look something like this:

People are regularly surprised, when they think about it, how many people are in their Leadership Impact Circle. Recently I worked with a law firm partner who had not given any thought to the impact that his abrasive leadership style was having on his fellow partners, who were finding him negative. When he was at his worst, the other partners were embarrassed that he was seen to be an equal of theirs. They could feel the demotivation and anger radiating from his team members, who regularly complained to them and their teams how bad he was. Clients had indirectly begun to pick up on the tensions in his team when work wasn’t being delivered on time. When he was leading, he was thinking only about his direct team. He had forgotten that his leadership was experienced, directly and indirectly, by others too. Creating a Leadership Impact Circle can really help to capture people you often forget about.

Split them into categories

You should now have a list of different groups of people who are in your circle of leadership influence. Working from the centre of the cirlce outwards, take a sheet of A4 paper per group. Head it with their name (‘my team’; ‘my company’; ‘my boss’; ‘my customers’, etc.) Having clear categories of people who are in your circle of influence will allow you to start to build up data on what each of them expects. You don’t have to go all the way to the outsdie of the circle. You may just want to look at those groups you have a lot, or some, impact on, and temporarily ignore those you only have a little impact on.

Now you need to find out what they expect of you as a leader.

Use any data that you already have

Any reasonable-sized company operating in the 2020s should have quite a lot of data already, that will give some clues. This will include appraisal data; customer feedback; 360 feedback; and informal opinions that you’ve heard voiced by reliable people. You should be able to get a sense of what they expect from leaders in general, and perhaps what they expect from you.

For example, if in filling out their own appraisal assessments, a lot of your team have said that they’re feeling a bit out of their depth, that could provide some clues that they expect you, as a leader, to help them to develop their skill. Or, it might mean they need to work on their resilience, or confidence. It gives you some useful clues that you can add to your dossier on the type of leader they are perhaps expecting you to be.

Similarly, if you’re received feedback from a major client that your team have done a great job at engaging with them, that feedback helps you to know that they like hands-on leadership on their account.

Remember at this point, this is a neutral data gathering exercise. You’re not comparing yourself to what they need or want; you’re just on a fact-finding mission. What do these people expect of their leaders? Whether that’s you, or anyone else, what is it that they’re looking for? What is it that they think would work for them?

Fill in the gaps

You’ve got some data already, but probably some gaps in what you know, too. The best way to fill in those gaps is to ask them. Remember that this is a neutral exercise: you want to know what is important to them in a leader – not how they think you’re doing. People generally like having their opinion sought and their preferences taken into account, pretty much always (this is a polite way to say that people like talking about themselves and having the world designed in a way that suits them). Some good questions might be: ‘‘What kind of leadership do you like?’ ‘What type of people do you like to be managed by?’ ‘What’s your idea of a terrible leader?’. ‘What sort of leader do you think works around here?’

One final way, if your company allows it: you can send around a short (anonymous) survey to your stakeholders regarding what they look for in a leader. It will take a little time to build one, but the data you’ll get is likely to be invaluable, as the handful of clients I’ve worked with who’ve put themselves out there and done this have discovered.

Use company objectives/vision/mission/purpose documents.

A company will also have an official line, regarding who it is (culture) and who it wants to be (strategy). You are likely to be expected to have a leadership style which fits. So, if, like Google, the company likes “challenger-leadership” and you prefer to go with the flow, you’re not likely to fit in that setting. (As an aside, that’s why good head-hunters are so well-paid: they get that a leader needs to fit the culture and strategy of a company and make it their life’s work to find the right fit.)

Separate wants and needs

One final step is to look down the data you’ve gathered, that you’ve separated into the different groups, and put W&N for Want & Need; or an N for Need; or a W for Want next to each of the areas you’ve identified. This is an important distinction. For example, does your team want you to be a leader that does lots of delegation whilst you know that they need more direct supervision on the current project because they’re not quite getting it (and appraisal data backs that up)? If so, you should put a W next to ‘autonomy’ and an N next to direct supervision.

If you follow the steps above, you will have begun to gain a clear sense of some characteristics that you really need as a leader because they are shared by most groups in your circle of influence. These are a great tool to use if you want to reflect on whether you are delivering what those closest to you want and need.

You’ll also have no doubt written down a number of contradictory and clashing expectations, between what your company and your team want, for example. Or between your boss and your boss’ boss. Next month I’m going to look at what you can do to deal with clashes and differences in expectations.


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