3 reasons leadership styles get in our way

Leadership styles are a major part of many leadership development programs, and a popular way to train leaders. It gives them a sense of who they are and how they can be most effective in their important and complex jobs. The modern concept of leadership styles has been around since the late 1930s and is typically traced back to Kurt Lewin’s study that identifies three core leadership styles.

Lewin’s work began to change the way people thought about leadership. Today, you can find hundreds of leadership models, most with accompanying styles. Styles can help leaders understand themselves and how to better lead. However, there are some common problems with all these leadership style models.

The problem isn’t the models themselves, but how we use them. Here are three major mistakes that occur because of reliance on leadership styles.

1. We use them to rationalize our behavior

“Since this is my leadership style, you can’t expect me to be good at that.” Unfortunately, the “that” being referred to is likely an important task or role the leader must play. By rationalizing “that’s not my style,” they convince themselves not to worry about it. Rationalizing is telling ourselves a “rational lie.” We don’t know it, nor do we need to learn it, because it isn’t included in our “labeled leadership style.” When we rationalize, we have no reason to change our behavior.

2. We use them to excuse our behavior

“I’m sorry, but that isn’t my style. I’m not a very [insert style description] leader.” Perhaps even more challenging than rationalizing, this is excusing behavior (or lack thereof) as acceptable, even if the approach or behavior didn’t work.

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3. We use them to oversimplify our work

The point of a model is to take something complicated and make it simpler to understand. This is why leadership style models are so helpful. They give us clues, cues and mental handles to deal with complex and complicated situations and ideas. But danger arises when we mistake the simplicity of the model for the truth itself. Appropriate responses only come from a deep familiarity and understanding of the reality of any situation.

I see all these mistakes made all the time. The problem with each is that the style becomes a substitute for continuing to learn how to lead more effectively. When we rationalize or excuse ourselves, there is no reason to learn anything new. (After all, “What is the point? We are X style of leader, not Y style.”) And when we oversimplify, we don’t see the need to learn either because “we understand leadership.”

As a guideline or a starting point, leadership styles are a beneficial tool to preliminarily understand behaviors or tendencies. It’s when we lean into them too hard that they can become a hindrance, not only to ourselves but to those we are developing as leaders. Just like any other label, we must be careful not to:

  • Rely on them too much
  • Teach them too early
  • Treat them as static truths from which people cannot evolve or grow
  • Apply too many different models.

We should treat our leadership style as a temporary landing spot, not a permanent residence. Just until we master the next skill.