Great leaders are consistently inconsistent

When I came across a blog by Jason Evanish on the Leadership Paradox, it struck a chord with me. Before I joined DelCor, I managed a team of marcomm designers:

  • one who grew along with the company but was often a naysayer (having endured so much change without having had any control over it),
  • one inherited new hire who was on the verge of being fired (who instead voluntarily left), and
  • one technically astute designer with a promising future I had the honor to hire.

Needless to say, I got to practice lots of leadership skills!

My experience in that role was underscored by Evanish’s Leadership Paradox: I had to be consistent to my role, but extremely flexible in how I carried it out with each individual designer.

Leadership is a custom fit.

The flailing designer could have been saved had he been self-aware and participatory in the effort. But he wasn’t willing to be led, managed, mentored, or coached. To the great advantage of our team, his replacement was quite the opposite, and grew into a star designer in the organization.

But the real challenge was working with the veteran designer. It ultimately proved to be incredibly rewarding for us both—she responded to my careful, attentive guidance to became a star in her own right, while helping me become a better leader.

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Following the highs and lows of this experience, despite the ongoing debate of leadership vs. management, I'm convinced that managers should be leaders, and leaders should be coaches and mentors.

The Leadership Paradox

Evanish defines the Leadership Paradox as "Balancing when to be rigid and when to be flexible"—a tricky task even in the very best of circumstances. He highlights five areas to be firmly consistent on—and five where leaders should practice flexibility. Here's a breakdown of the principles.

How and when to be a consistent leader:

  1. Values. Choose ’em wisely and live by ’em. Period.
  2. Lead by example. Remarks Evanish, “Nothing has a bigger impact on culture than the example you set.”
  3. Enable professional development for all employees. Don’t be distracted by just the top or bottom performers.
  4. Be a coach/mentor/guide—and connect with your staff regularly. “Not taking advantage of the power of one on ones for everyone on your team is a huge loss as these conversations impact their morale, motivation, and quality of their work.”
  5. Accountability. It's not just for mistakes. Leaders should hold staff accountable for their successes, too. Celebrating success is worthwhile, but don’t stop there, only to move directly on to the next project. Look for learning and opportunities to share that learning in the form of skill development, process reengineering, etc. Success breeds more success, better process, and raises everyone’s performance—but only if you leverage and learn from it.

When is it okay—even desirable—to be inconsistent?

  1. Supporting your staff’s growth/advancement is an incredibly individualized effort. “By adapting how you help each person on your team grow, you’ll show you’re invested in their growth and success no matter their goals or circumstances,” Evanish wisely notes.
  2. Don’t be a hammer/don’t get into a rut: manage to the individual.
  3. Embrace task-relevant maturity. It’s a concept outlined by Intel co-founder Andrew Grove in his book, High Output Management. “How much experience does a given subordinate have with the specific task at hand?” asks Grove. “The most effective management style in a specific instance varies from very close to very loose supervision as a subordinate’s task maturity increases.” Manage to this and extend the leash as your employee grows.
  4. On the leadership highway, know when to speed up and slow down to support your team in the moment and for the long haul—and don’t overlook recovery time. Evanish advises, “Take the time to gauge when you really need to drive hard and when you can treat your work like the paced marathon that work is.”
  5. Delegate your best work. Not exactly how Evanish puts it in his blog, but a personal mantra I embraced while earning my master’s in leadership and managing a design team where sharing great work wasn’t the status quo. Delegating the good stuff, rather than solely handing off the grunt work, is rewarding for both leader and employee. Try it!

Flickr photo by Jessica Lucia