You’re not locked into being one kind of leader. Here are the mindset shifts to make.
This article was originally published in Fast Company.
It is easy to fall into a way of thinking that we are this kind of person or that kind of person. At work, we often embrace certain identities: “I am the tough leader who takes no bulls**t.” “I am the caring leader who always takes my team out for birthday lunches.” “I am the strategizer, really good at blue-sky thinking, so don’t ask me to execute anything.”
This type of thinking, what psychologists call self-labelling, can be very beneficial.
The titles or personas we adopt can provide us with a sense of identity that grounds us and helps us to make sense of the world and our place in it. A strong sense of self, whether fully accurate or not, can give us the confidence to set and accomplish goals and to overcome self-doubts. Our self-labels can also feed our need for connection and belonging, allowing us to signal to fellow travelers what we are all about and why others should like us.
However, these self-labels can also be limiting, locking us into a box that doesn’t allow us to be other things at the same time or to grow in new directions.
In reality, a leader can never be just one type of person. The demands of the job don’t allow it. Moreover, holding on to this orientation can be frustrating and detrimental, both to yourself and the teams that you lead.
We have written extensively about a common self-labelling trap into which leaders frequently fall. It’s thinking that one can be either a performance-driven leader who delivers results or a people-driven leader who takes care of employees. An either/or mentality has pushed leaders into falsely thinking that they have to trade off performance for care, and that they can’t embody both types of leadership.
Leaders work in extremely complex, ambiguous, and dynamic environments which require them to be many things at different times and need to let go of the belief that they have to choose one type of leadership. This means learning how to be both/and leaders.
The Case For Both/And
Professors Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis laid the groundwork for both/and thinking years ago and most recently in their book. They describe the tensions and polarization that leaders feel when faced with seemingly opposing goals and how reframing decisions from either/or ones to both/and ones can unlock new paths forward. In this newly expanded space, say Smith and Lewis, “there are multiple truths, resources are abundant, and the role of management is to cope with change rather than fight it.”
The same dynamic comes into play when leaders think about their personal leadership. When they let go of the notion that they can be either one kind of leader or another and realize that they can and must embody multiple identities, then so much more opportunity is released.
Potential Project has conducted many research studies to identify and quantify the impact of being a both/and leader. In one of our largest research studies, conducted for our book Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, we gathered data from over 2,000 leaders.
We found that when leaders demonstrate both wisdom (they do hard but necessary things) and compassion (they show care and empathy towards others), the impact on employee wellness and productivity is exponentially higher than for leaders who are just wise or just compassionate. With the both/and leaders, employee job satisfaction increased by 86%, job performance increased by 20%, and commitment to the company increased by 61%.
Earlier this year, we looked closely at purpose in leadership because we suspected there might be some either/or trade-offs at play, and indeed there were. The leaders we surveyed struggled to lead with purpose because they clung to one view of what it looked like—forward-looking and inspiring, charismatic, and catalyzing.
The reality is that leading with purpose happens not just in big, important moments but also in everyday moments. It requires both vision to galvanize a team or organization and pragmatism to remain realistic and grounded.
With the both/and purpose leaders we surveyed, employee burnout is 14% less and well-being is 12% higher than with leaders who are either visionary or pragmatic.
Become a Both/And Leader
If becoming more of a both/and leader sounds right and good, your next question may be how best to get there. And the answer is with a guide, pro tips, and practice. These are important because you will be dealing with behaviors and mindsets that have become ingrained over time. It’s a bit like wanting to improve your tennis serve. Your desire may be to land the ball skillfully in your opponent’s court, but your actions send it careening off-course. You can’t see that you are stepping too widely or releasing the ball at the wrong time because you’ve always done it that way. But a tennis pro watching you can point this out and help you to correct your actions.
Recently, Potential Project released a research-backed guide to what a both/and leader looks like, one who can do hard things in a human way. We call it the Human Leader Compass. It lays out three fundamental qualities to embody (awareness, wisdom, and compassion) and 15 specific mindsets, which leaders should learn and practice.
With each of the mindsets, we describe specifically what the both/and looks like. In this way, a leader can more easily recognize when they are getting stuck in one place and better appreciate the counterbalance that is needed.
Mental Agility Mindset
To function in a near constant state of uncertainty, leaders need mental agility, or the ability to adapt to change by flexibly adjusting one’s attention. With mental agility, leaders balance focus—giving pointed attention to the present situation to effectively execute—and big-picture awareness by zooming out to grasp the meta-view, to separate the signals from the noise. Do you get stuck too long in focus mode or get lost in big-picture mode? Try this simple practice to build up your mental agility mindset.
One of the primary roles of a leader is to make and execute hard decisions, which can often entail confrontation and discomfort. Having the courage to willingly approach confrontation is one of the most important skills of a leader. It means moving out of one’s comfort zone and entering challenging situations to be of benefit to others. With courage, leaders bring the both/and of confidence (in one’s decisions, experiences, etc.) and vulnerability (to connect with other’s experiences).
Looking to get started on your courage mindset? Here is one pro tip: Have at least one conversation per day that requires a little bit of courage from you. You will know that it does if the conversation feels slightly uncomfortable.
Leaders with an optimism mindset help their teams through crises or periods of intense change by allowing for today to feel challenging and also igniting a sense of ownership to create a more positive future. Leaders with optimism are realistic, and fully accept a situation for what it is. They are also hopeful and confident, approaching each challenge with curiosity and experimentation.
One simple tip for strengthening your optimism: Pause daily to reflect on the positive aspects of your life, like your relationships, health, freedom, education, senses, career, or community. How would your life be different without them?
Perhaps it feels liberating to know that you are not locked into being one kind of leader. Perhaps it feels overwhelming to realize you need to expand your leadership repertoire. Becoming a both/and leader isn’t easy. It means breaking out of well-worn grooves and overcoming our very human aversion to change. But if you work at it, you will keep getting better at it. And your entire team or organization will benefit.