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Behaviors, social markers, and gravitas - what really makes for a successful leadership style?
February 15, 2021
Behaviors, social markers, and gravitas – what really makes for a successful leadership style?
February 15, 2021

According to an IBM Global Human Capital Study, over 75 percent of the respondents identified building leadership talent as their current and most significant capabilities challenge. Leaders today sometimes appear to be an endangered species. The second most important capacity-building challenge facing organizations in this study was fostering a culture that supports learning and development. Clearly, these two key challenges are closely related.

According to When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss, football great Vince Lombardi had the reputation of an arrogant man. The players referred to him as “Little General” and “Little Mussolini.” But then something unexpected happened: Lombardi’s behaviour began to evolve. “He began roaming the hall of the Willamette dorm at night, visiting with the players,” Maraniss writes. “He acknowledged that he had much to learn and sought their advice, help, and loyalty….He tried to become one of the guys, not the authoritarian boss but the smarter older brother; they called him Vince or Vinnie, not Coach or Mr. Lombardi. He drank with them, laughed loudly at their jokes, and told them how much he wanted them to succeed.”

We all, at some point, have known a corporate Lomardi, someone who through their nature evokes mistrust and warrants distance. Typically an ambitious Alpha, either male or female, intimidating, domineering, and coercive. Someone who exhibits a much more powerful style in professional settings than he or she does in other social contexts, for example, team gatherings, events, and exhibitions, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum is someone who is much too agreeable—perhaps this employee never states their views publicly, is too timid or perhaps just cannot take a stand, even when the situation warrants it.

The reality is, we wouldn’t want to have to choose between either of them as leaders, because either the company structure would become too authoritarian or too lax.

The truth is that these things matter: A great leadership style can make people appear more competent than they truly are, and a poor style can drag down a superior skill set. So how can aspiring executives improve their leadership style?

Leadership style is best described by what you do, how The signals we send to others about our status—or lack thereof—fall into two categories: power and attractiveness. Neither set of markers is inherently good or bad. Powerful markers are associated with expressions of confidence, competence, charisma, and influence but also arrogance, abrasiveness, and intimidation. Examples include interrupting others and grabbing a pen off someone’s desk without permission. Attractiveness markers are related to expressions of agreeableness, approachability, likability but also diffidence, lack of confidence, and submissiveness. Examples include holding the door for someone and favoring questions over statements. People with powerful styles often view more-attractive colleagues as weak. People with attractive styles tend to view powerful colleagues as rude.

“Leadership, like the inner workings of a computer, is a complex set of relationships, systems, and processes that few fully master.”

The Difference

In today’s complex, uncertain, and fast-paced business environment, it is tempting to simply react to the latest issue and manage what is. The best leaders, however, in addition to reacting to the current situation, are able to create something new. What often separates the best leaders is their ability to be visionary and creative, not just vigilant and reactive. Rather than react to situations and manage what is, visionary leaders—ones who bring broader awareness and ability to show up with a sense of humanity—focus on creating what is not, but what should be, in service of a greater purpose. Sadly, a recent study* shows that 80 percent of executives today operate from a reactive state of mind.

To meet the numerous challenges of the increasingly complex business landscape, we must create opportunities to be nimble and fluid with our approach; this means going beyond predictive, analytical ways of working (flow charts and hypothesis-driven problem solving) and embracing more discovery and experimentation.

There is good news: We can train creative competencies, and, according to a recent study*, women tend to naturally operate from a more creative state of mind. They are more purposeful, system aware, and relational in their leadership. Still, at most firms, women are expected to conform to the dominant patriarchal style, thereby limiting their range.

“Research led by Bart Wille of the University of Antwerp, which included 600 top-level executives (143 women) and 52,000 non-executives (17,643 women), shows women—as they get more senior—tend to conform and be rewarded to fit into this male-centric style of leadership.”

Read the Room

Gaining the ability to “read the room” is part of fine-tuning your leadership style. Although you may have an idea of how you want to be perceived when entering a situation, your plan may need to change once you’re actually there. Generally speaking, you should assess the markers you’re receiving from others before deciding on your own approach.

More often than not, if you’re receiving power markers from someone, you will want to match them to garner respect. Similarly, if you’re reading attractive markers from others, you’ll want to lean attractive so as not to seem overbearing.

Executives make a common mistake by using power markers with subordinates and attractive markers with higher-ups. The opposite approach is often more effective. Using power markers with juniors—such as ignoring them, abruptly changing topics, or talking too much in their presence—can make you less effective. In contrast, using too many attractive markers—phrasing statements as questions, speaking more slowly, and using nonfluencies (such as “um” and “you know”)—can lead executives to conclude that you’re not their peer. Overemphasizing attractive markers when communicating upward to show respect is particularly likely to backfire in U.S.-based companies. To solve this problem, lean powerful with more-senior people, and lean attractive when talking to more-junior people.

The Sweet Spot

Few people favor the extremes, instead of leaning to one side or the other. A truly blended managerial style is rare and involves an equal use of both power and softness. A blended style can be best summed up as having “presence.” Leaders who are praised for their polish and gravitas have a deft ability to adopt the right professional attributes to suit the situation.

Few things are more frustrating for talented professionals than hitting a ceiling in their careers because they lack the appropriate leadership style. A boss senses that something is missing in a person’s tool kit but can’t put a finger on exactly what it is or how the person can improve. The boss says something like “You’re lacking important intangibles” or “You need more gravitas” but fails to provide specific advice or tools for improving.
It is equally frustrating to watch people with mediocre technical skills move up the ladder quickly because they have an exceptional leadership style. Bosses defend such promotions by emphasizing the employees’ soft skills, calling them “poised,” “confident,” and “dynamic.”
Some of the common markers which quickly trickle into dogmatic office behaviour include interrupted listening, not accompanying opinions with questions more often, lack of “partnership language” by using fewer “I” references and more “we” and “our” references, and an absence of empathetic listening.

Despite the fact that the hallmarks of leadership style are similar around the world, people of diverse groups are often judged differently even when they display identical style markers.

When a woman disagrees with her colleagues, for example, she may be labeled “abrasive” or “aggressive,” while her male colleague is seen as “candid” or “direct.” We certainly don’t advise women and minorities not to get angry, disagree, or promote their accomplishments. Rather, we advise them to carefully select markers that will help them develop a blended style. The right assortment can allow you to show loyalty to the group you want to lead while still maintaining your uniqueness. Certain minority leaders will want to adopt more power markers; others will need more attractive markers. But again, don’t go overboard. Altering your style to conform in a way that hides your diverse traits, or overplaying your differences in a way that distracts from your leadership, can backfire. Women must walk a narrow tightrope: They must have the courage to interrupt, use fewer nonfluencies, and use more-intense words while blending in more relational and empathetic responses, statements as questions, and happy expressions. Male leaders who are perceived as outliers in a group also have a small margin for error. We wish this weren’t the case—but as long as unconscious bias and discrimination exist, minorities and women will need to put extra effort into developing a blended leadership style.

Leadership Presence

We all have a particular set of markers that we default to in neutral situations or when the social context is unclear. This can be called our natural style. We behave more powerfully relative to our natural style when we feel we have the status (for example, we are the more senior, educated, experienced, technical, or connected person in a workplace interaction). We behave more attractively relative to our natural style when we are the more junior or less-experienced person.

Most people’s natural style falls into one of five categories along a spectrum:

    lean powerful,
    lean attractive,

More than 30 years ago, the sociolinguist Howard Giles and colleagues first identified a set of behaviours, or social markers, that we all use to express ourselves and by which we evaluate others. These markers are a language we learn in childhood, as we begin to see that people behave differently depending on whether they hold status or not. Older siblings may bark at you for the remote control, for example, but behave obsequiously to parents when they want to borrow the car.

Social markers can be expressed through language, nonverbal communication (such as body language), or context setting (sitting at the head of the table, for instance). Your choice of markers determines how others view you.

Capturing “Return on Leadership”

“Return on Leadership—Competencies that Generate Growth Return”, a report published jointly with Egon Zehnder in February 2011, took a close look at the links between leadership and high performance. The study combined extensive management appraisal data from Egon Zehnder with McKinsey’s growth composition data. Altogether, the analysis covered a database that included 47 companies and 5,560 individual appraisals. We sought to determine the nature of the relationship between leadership skills and performance, the extent of influence various skills have, and the core capabilities of success.

The research found that talent is important among leaders, but only exceptional talent makes a real difference. As expected, the capabilities of executives at companies in the top quartile of our research pool were about 20 percent higher than those from the bottom quartile. There was a high correlation between executives with “excellent” capabilities and financial performance, while merely “good” performances showed no correlation. In addition, of all the management capabilities we analyzed, customer impact—understanding and anticipating customer needs—had the greatest influence on corporate growth under almost any strategic situation and across all management levels.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, all-round leaders—those with a wide range of good, but not distinctive, capabilities and few weaknesses—aren’t necessarily the best leaders. The study showed that spiky leaders who excel in at least a few capabilities but are average or even underperformers in others have the greatest impact on corporate growth. Further, beyond individual capabilities around customer impact, we found no standard skill set that worked best for all strategies and at all levels. Most interesting, people leadership skills were not necessarily the most important for senior executives in every situation. Growth through mergers and acquisitions, for example, requires the top team to master a set of thought leadership and business leadership capabilities, while organic growth requires a greater emphasis on people and organizational skills.

A small group of excellent leaders is not sufficient to steer an ambitious business, a fact that is especially relevant to businesses that have grown rapidly. A critical mass of excellent leaders is required to trigger and sustain corporate growth. To outperform the competition, organizations must grab, develop, and retain an unfair share of exceptional talent.

A Blended Style Matters More for Minorities and Women

Our research and coaching are complicated by the fact that leadership style cannot be fully divorced from unconscious biases and discrimination. Leadership is a normative construct; when asked to “draw a leader,” people (regardless of their gender) tend to draw a man. Research shows that women face a competency-likability trade-off: The more they demonstrate proficiency, the more likely their peers are to find their style off-putting. Minorities and LGBTQ executives who look or act in a manner that doesn’t conform to an organization’s dominant culture may also be penalized by colleagues who characterize them (perhaps unconsciously) as “not like us.”

“According to data from the Chief Learning Officer business intelligence board, the leadership industry is a $366 billion global industry and nearly 95% of learning organizations either plan to increase or maintain their current investment in leadership development.”

Personal characteristics have a significant impact on leadership style, and one’s leadership style determines to a great degree one’s response to every situation. With the right amount of training and watching professional and social cues, there’s no telling how a professional can evolve.

Overall, good, mindful leadership influences how the organization is being steered, and how the outside customers and public view it. Effective leaders are able to adapt their style of behavior to the needs of their followers and to the nature of the situation, as was just discussed in the contingency theory. That is one of the reasons why there is no single model for a successful leader. Many historical leaders, such as Churchill, Lincoln, and others have been excellent leaders in difficult times and situations, but have been unsuccessful at other times.