Different Perspectives on Leadership: What Really Matters Most?

A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

~Parker J. Palmer

Over the years, a lot of conversation and theorizing has engaged with the question of the most effective leadership ‘style’, meaning how an individual shows up and achieves desired outcomes with and through others. Different categories have emerged and been held in high regard for different reasons. For example, authoritarian leadership is thought to instill confidence and directionality that cuts through ambiguity and moves into action. Inspirational leadership is viewed as uplifting and engaging by setting a desirable example. Utilitarian leadership is seen as cutting to the chase and ensuring viability in terms of the bottom line. Thinking in terms of style can help us anticipate popularity, it doesn’t really give us much insight into how it will impact organizational effectiveness.

To get closer to the effectiveness question, we can think about leadership in terms of the form of mastery it has as its goal. For example, thought leadership aspires to shape how things are construed and interpreted, thereby defining what will have meaning for others and is likely to guide their actions. Relationship leadership occupies itself with shaping the nature of the connection between people - determining the balance of power and form interdependence that will characterize the social-politic of the organization. Task leadership concentrates on the ‘what, how, and how well’ of things to be achieved, thereby driving the organization’s performance agenda and eventual outcomes. And finally, business leadership focuses on ensuring that the cost-benefit equations around resource utilization work out favourably for the chooser. What this perspective on leadership makes evident is that each form of mastery enlivens a different ‘functionality’ in an organization that is vitally important to its overall efficacy.

A third way to think about leadership is in terms of the type of courage that the leadership behavior embodies. For example, physical courage is about the willingness to challenge the body to do more than the usual, including risking injury or death to achieve exceptional outcomes. Moral courage is about sensitivity to impact, honouring the voice of conscience, and stepping forward to right wrongs. Social courage is about the willingness to display vulnerability (risking shame, embarrassment, loss) for the sake of opening channels of authentic relating with others. Creative courage is about the willingness to propose novel solutions that make meaning of challenges and open the way forward with new visions of what is possible that others can rally around. Each of these come-froms charts paths into the higher reaches of human potential and leads by calling forth greater displays of our humanity.  

Thinking about leadership in terms of the form of courage it represents and the type of mastery it aspires to lets us move past the cult of personality to firmer and more relevant ground for giving followership. If we want engaged employees and cultures of innovation in our organizations, we need to ask ourselves: What forms of leadership courage and mastery do we need to allow, endorse, and follow?

Germaine Watts is a thought leader, author, speaker and co-founder of Ensentious – a consultancy and workshop/retreat provider dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations thrive. As a mindfulness coach, SuccessFinder expert, and facilitator with the Centre for Courage and Renewal, she seeks to foster connection between soul and role in ways that support of personal, organizational, and societal transformation.