Contemporary Leadership Is Not Soft, It Is Balanced

Published on: Thu 10 August 2023 by Claudia Cooney

There’s a spectrum of leadership styles with two very different but popular approaches at the polar opposites: The Boss Approach (direct, practical, leads from the front) and The Coach Approach (authentic, empathetic, leads alongside). Which style do you prefer from the leaders in your organisation, and why?  

1,726 people answered the question, and here’s what they said:  

  • The Boss Approach – 26% 
  • The Coach Approach – 36% 
  • Blend of two – 38% 
A photo of four team members having a discussion during a meeting.

Some may have hypothesised that a greater percentage would have chosen the Coach Approach; not just because it sounds more people-pleasing but with prominent publications recently highlighting the value of softer qualities such as empathy, vulnerability and authenticity in contemporary leadership, it would be reasonable to assume the timeworn Boss Approach was being shown the door. However, the survey results suggest that before hinges creak, we should take pause for thought.   

In fact, there are many reasons why a leader might require a blend of the two or a Balanced Approach. Setting comfortable boundaries in the context of sharing our vulnerabilities; balancing collaboration with timely decision-making; being supportive and empathetic but not at the expenses of courageous conversations and effective performance management…  

But before we explore the ‘Balanced’ Approach let’s look at the ‘Boss’ and ‘Coach’ Approaches, both regularly seen and easily recognised. 

The Coach Approach

Upon first glance, this is the one that stands most confidently under the Contemporary Leadership umbrella. As specialists in People Development for three (plus) decades, we’ve seen a notable, recent rise in HR and L&D teams (across all sectors) looking to develop a coaching culture and leadership teams who are collaborative, inclusive and above all ‘human’ in their approach to people management. 

Think Jacinda Arden (former Prime Minister of New Zealand). In particular, when during Covid she hosted a Facebook Live Q&A, sat on soft furnishings in an oversized jumper having just put her toddler to bed. A wonderful moment where she showed there’s no need to take off the parent-hat and put on a tailored jacket to be a good leader.  

The Boss Approach

Elon Musk and Donald Trump are two prominent leaders who may lean most towards the Boss Approach; extreme examples perhaps, but easily visualised for sure. They’re direct in their communication style, lead their vision from the front, and like to get s**t done in the way they know works. Showing vulnerability or talking about how people feel are not features of the Boss Approach that is viewed by some as a more ‘old-school’ way of leading people.  

Interestingly though, one in four people surveyed say they prefer this approach from their leaders. Clear expectations, unambiguous communication and a strong focus on achieving results are no doubt attractive qualities; qualities it seems we cannot lose entirely. So where is the balance between being supportive and directive? 

The Balanced Approach   

Balance is the sweet spot in many aspects of life (I’ve finally realised!) What is less easy to pin down is the precise balance point and, in reality there’s no hard and fast rule for finding or maintain it. But here are four things we can think about when we test out a more Balanced Approach in the context of our team or organisation: 

  1. Know about Situational Leadership? 

The Situational Leadership model, developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey is an oldie but a goodie. It offers four different leaderships styles against ‘supportive behaviours’ and ‘directive behaviours’ axes, and a way to reflect on an individual’s experience, confidence and attitudes before choosing the right approach for them. This model, and others, reinforce the benefits of being mindful and fluid in one’s leadership practice, and tailoring our approach to the individual.  

  1. Comfortable with Courageous Conversations? 

If hand on heart you rarely engage in one of those somewhat uncomfortable conversations, we’d all rather not have – nicely coined the ‘courageous conversation’ – there’s a chance your dodging aspects of people management that can’t be avoided without consequence. Whilst some leaders don’t feel comfortable asking for feedback and ideas from colleagues, others let poor performance and inappropriate behaviours slide. Either way regular courageous conversations are a good sign you are stepping out of your comfort zone and toward balance. 

  1. Aware of the Perception Gap?  

Research shows there is often a gap between the perceptions of leaders and the rest of the colleague population when it comes to what’s needed to make an organisation a better place to work. This is known as the Perception Gap. In the context of Leadership, we need to be mindful that whilst some Senior Leaders, HR professionals and readers of Harvard Business Review may subscribe to cutting edge schools of thought, it would be wrong to assume that all colleagues concur. Upbringing, experience in the role, extroverted and introverted personality types, visible or hidden disabilities, mental health or neurological differences are just some factors that may influence an individual’s support needs and communication preferences. And of course, as leaders we are not only responsible for individuals, but for delicately balancing the needs of the organisation and broader team too.  

  1. How Often Do You Ask? 

Often, just asking people what they want and need more, or less, of is the best way to go. Find ways of gathering feedback through employee surveys and culture diagnostics to get a data-driven understanding of the company climate. Be brave and say yes to opportunities for 360-degree feedback for a rounded view of what it’s like to work with you. And most importantly carefully craft a series of open questions that start dialogue and invite honest feedback at regular (formal and informal) one-to-ones too.  

In Summary 

Consume the hottest new research and Leadership concepts if that’s your thing, or start with testing the boundaries of what you think you know, but remember there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach and above all, to be a Contemporary Leader we must continue to practice the fine art of balance.  

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