We could make a career of studying and learning the different models of leadership that exist in our world. However, while all these models may be helpful and certainly serve to inspire and provoke our thinking, here’s what I know to be true: the most profound shift we can make as leaders of ourselves and others is to undertake the creation of our own leadership model.
When it comes to how leaders are made, it’s overwhelmingly clear that there is no one-size-fits-all path to effective leadership—and no one way to lead effective change. Clarity really begins with thinking about what effective leadership looks like for you, and then stepping into the work of understanding and assessing the beliefs and assumptions you have about what it means to lead change.
This work is personal and it’s deep. To get started, we need to explore the top two toxic assumptions that many leaders make. Disengaging from these basic thought patterns is a first step toward becoming a leader who can create real, lasting change for yourself, your team, and your organization.
Leadership assumption #1: Assuming you know what the real problem is
Two years ago, we experienced a problem in my team, and I definitely thought I knew what was going on. The presenting issue was that we could not agree on what our collaboration board should look like or how it should function. As the leader, I fell into the trap of assuming I knew what the problem was and what to do: we weren’t aligning on a vision, so I just needed to tell them what to do, set standards, and get people trained.
But that training just turned into more training—and the issue stayed an issue.
Looking back on it now, I can tell you that the collaboration board was definitely not the issue—not at all. The issue was a breakdown in our team communication. We were all coming into the topic with different perspectives and agendas, and we were all frustrated for different reasons. But because we hadn’t stopped to talk about what was really happening in the breakdown, the collaboration tool became the “safe” topic that we could focus on—the thing we could vocally disagree about and express frustration around. It became a proxy for the real conversation.
The real conversation was about the relationships, perspectives, and values at play in the room. And I had never created space for us to listen and inquire more deeply into what was going on.
When problems manifest in teams, they are often signals that something is needed or missing in the conversation. Rather than assuming that you know what the real problem is, your role as an effective leader is to ask.
Seek to understand. Bring curiosity. Assume you don’t know. Resist the temptation to solve or fix. Welcome the disturbance as an indicator or warning light—and don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s the actual problem.
Leadership assumption #2: Assuming that leadership means telling others what to do
We’ve been trained—and rewarded—from an early age to solve problems and have the “right” answers. After all, when have you ever been given a promotion for not knowing what to do?
But what if I told you that your role as an effective leader is not about having a solution to every problem?
In fact, the more complex the problem, the less likely it is that any one human will have a solution or the full breadth of knowledge to tell other people what to do—and the less likely it is that others will be receptive to it. I mean, who just wants to be told what to do all day?
Here’s what skillful leadership actually looks like: convening conversations where others can come together and find the best solutions through co-creative exploration and generative dialogue. Learning how to enable effective conversation starts with asking yourself probing questions. Try these on for size:
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that leadership means you are expected to have all the answers. By assuming, instead, that generative conversations produce better results, you will begin to see impactful changes in how your teams collaborate and the solutions that emerge.
Why rethinking what leadership means can help make lasting change in teams and organizations
Creating sustainable change in our teams and organizations requires us to adapt our mental models of leadership.
Leadership can look like supporting and championing the ideas of others. It can look like sensing what’s needed in the moment and responding accordingly. It can also look like leading together with others, sharing leadership responsibilities.
Learning to let leadership take all these different forms is what I call having "leadership range." When leaders develop the ability to step forward and the ability to step back when necessary, they make space for others to put forward ideas and engage in meaningful ways. This is how to facilitate, cultivate, and create sustainable change at any level of your organization—because we all invest in what we co-create.
FAQs on what it takes to become a good leader
What does leadership mean in the workplace?
Leadership at work can be demonstrated by anyone, and it is more art than science. It’s engaging with others in a way that helps everyone show up and be the best version of themselves that they can be while empowering them to work together toward a common goal.
What makes an effective leader?
An effective leader is able to show up flexibly and authentically in an increasingly complex work environment with the self- and other-awareness necessary to skillfully facilitate challenging conversations with diverse teams. You’ve hired smart people—your job is to create an environment where they thrive and the collective intelligence is accessible.
What are the biggest myths about leadership?
The biggest myth about leadership is that leaders need to have all the answers—that our job is to have a solution to every problem, be able to set the direction in every situation, tell people what to do, and wield enough authority and respect that they will just do it. While some situations may call for that, they should be rare and not the norm.
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