Learning to lead effectively in any situation
A methodology for expanding your leadership repertoire
If you consider yourself a leader, it’s likely you have a tried and true leadership style that you’re comfortable with, a set of behaviors that come naturally to you. This style leverages your strengths: the very traits that got you to where you are today.
I’ve coached leaders who describe their default style as being a Warrior (fiery, competitive, and intense), a Quarterback (resilient and laser focused on the goalpost), Craftsperson (someone with a high standard of excellence and attention to detail and quality), a Coach (someone with strong empathy and personal caring), and “a more approachable Anna Wintour.”
And yet, there are times when our leadership lets us down.
Have you ever been faced with a challenge, tried an approach that’s worked for you in the past, only to find that it didn’t yield the same results?
Have you ever worked with someone who just doesn’t click with you, no matter how much you try to see their perspective?
In these situations, many leaders resort to blame. They’re the ones that are wrong and need to get with the program. If only they were more collaborative, ambitious, accountable, intelligent, competent, reasonable…
Other leaders get frustrated by the situation. If only we had a clearer strategy. If only we had more resources. If only we didn’t have so much competition coming at us.
The most effective leaders turn to creativity. My usual approach isn’t working. How might I try something new?
Leadership as a repertoire
Just as a musician has a collection of pieces that they habitually play and are prepared to perform, a leader’s repertoire should consist of the styles and behaviors they’ve practiced and can confidently apply.
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, in partnership with consulting firm Hay/McBer, studied over 3,800 executives and wrote about six leadership styles: Coercive, Authoritative, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching . Together they noticed that the most effective leaders don’t rely just on one style; they flex between styles depending on what the situation calls for.
In addition to these six basic styles, there are infinite leadership behaviors we can add to our repertoire.
Imagine a leader— let’s call her Amy— who’s excelling as Head of Product at a scrappy startup. A chief strength of hers is making fast decisions with high uncertainty/risk so the company could execute at lightning speed and hit crucial milestones for their next fundraise. Her team is grateful for her decisiveness and gives her positive feedback for not dragging her feet.
Amy’s startup grows rapidly, in large part thanks to her leadership. The company hires out its C-Suite. Suddenly, Amy’s strength is perceived as steamrolling. She is accused of not being collaborative, and her cross-functional peers become resentful that she doesn’t seek out their opinions before landing a major company-wide decision.
What happened? Certainly, decisiveness and speed are still Amy’s strengths. The problem? She is running these strengths on autopilot without sufficient awareness of when they’re effective and when they’re not.
In this current configuration her usual approach leads to tension, distrust, and blocked progress. It’s time to expand her leadership repertoire.
How to expand your repertoire
Step 1: Understand your current repertoire
(a) What are your strengths? Don’t speculate; get comprehensive 360 feedback from those around you. Make sure that their feedback is anchored in things you say or do. What observable actions do you consistently take that enable your team to be effective?
(b) When, where, and with whom have those strengths been most effective? In what situations have you had the impact you wanted, and why? Be as tangible as possible. Instead of saying, “My fiery, motivational leadership style is most effective when there’s strategic uncertainty,” paint a specific picture: “My fiery, motivational leadership style has been effective when I’m in an All Hands meeting with a team that has camaraderie and trust, and that has worked together long enough to feel a shared purpose.”
(c) When, where, and with whom have those strengths been less effective? In what situations have you not had the impact you wanted, and why? Again, be as tangible as possible. For example: “My fiery, motivational leadership style has been ineffective when in a meeting with cross-functional peers from the Infrastructure team or other teams that I don’t meet with on a consistent basis.”
Step 2: Develop hypotheses about new behaviors to add to your repertoire
(a) Identify 2-3 situations where you want to improve your leadership and what success would look like. When, where, and with whom do you want to be more effective? What would a realistic picture of success look like in those situations? What do you want others to feel, think, and do— and to what end?
For example: “I want to be more effective when meeting with the Infrastructure team to align on goals. When we meet, I want them to feel trusting of me and open to new ideas. I want them to think: ‘This person has his own opinions and listens to my perspective. He’s someone I want to partner with more. I enjoy jamming on ideas with him.”
Check that your definition of success is both (a) realistic and (b) desirable in the long run. If you’ve been in a heated disagreement with another leader, you can’t expect them to walk away from the next meeting thinking: “Wow, I was wrong and he was right all along! Silly me, I should really listen to him next time and avoid any dissent!” In addition to being unrealistic, this outcome is likely driven by ego and a short term desire to be right, which is detrimental to your team in the long run.
(b) What leadership behaviors do you hypothesize will allow you to have the impact you want? The best way to develop hypotheses is to ask for feedback from the people you want to impact.
For example, you can ask them: “I’d like to be better at aligning on goals in cross-functional meetings with the Infrastructure team. What could I say and/or do to be more effective in that setting?” It’s OK if you’re not 100% sure these behaviors will work; you’ll have an opportunity to test and iterate.
Step 3: Test, get feedback, and iterate
(a) Try the new behavior. I encourage my coaching clients to experiment with something new each week in a safe, low stakes setting. It’s the only way to increase your flexibility and grow as a leader. If you stay in your comfort zone and stick only to the strengths you have now— it does a huge disservice to your team and to your own growth. Yes, it might feel awkward and uncomfortable the first time. Musicians feel uncomfortable the first time they play a new piece of music, and dancers can get the jitters when learning a new choreography. The best leaders recognize that their drive to grow and learn supersedes the discomfort. As a result, they improve exponentially faster than average leaders.
(b) Get feedback. Most leaders are resistant to ask for feedback. They worry about coming off as insecure or like they don’t know what they’re doing. The best leaders I’ve worked with ask for frequent, bite-sized pieces of feedback, in addition to the deeper feedback they get through 360s or performance reviews. Doing so shows they care about the impact of their actions, that they value honesty and have a growth mindset. After you try the new behavior, message a team member immediately afterward and get their thoughts. For example: “Can I ask you for a favor? I’ve been looking to improve how I show up in these meetings with Infrastructure. Could you give me some feedback on what if anything I did effectively, and what I could do to be more effective?” You can even ask team members beforehand that you’d like feedback, so they can look out for it in the meeting.
(c) Iterate. If it didn’t work the first time, no sweat. It was just an experiment. Leverage your team’s feedback and your self reflection to tweak the behavior, or go back to step 2(b) and try something else.
When you try a new behavior, a few things can happen:
Scenario 1: Things go smoothly the first time. A small behavioral shift leads to exactly the outcome you wanted, and you get to step back and marvel at your own ingenuity.
Scenario 2: It takes a few iterations to nail down a behavior that works. You need to be patient and reliably collect feedback.
Scenario 3: You have a strong hypothesis about what the situation calls for— but for some reason, you can’t bring yourself to do that behavior in the moment. There is often a deeper factor that’s keeping you from changing how you act: a belief, past experience, and bodily sensation that creates an automatic response to the situation rather than allowing you to try a new behavior.
It can be helpful to reflect with a trusted mentor or coach— someone who knows you well, can help you uncover blind spots, and supports you in working through challenges that come up.
Step 4: Solidify and practice
(a) Give it a name. When developing a new behavior, it helps to give it a distinctive name so you can intentionally remember: “In situation X, I want to call upon Y behaviors.” Referring back to our previous example, perhaps the fiery, motivational leader wants to try listening and acknowledging the other team’s concerns. They could name this the “Listen First” style to easily access it in the future
(b) Practice it consistently. Once you’ve landed on a behavior that works for the intended situation, repeat it consistently until it feels more natural. At some point, you’ll find that you don’t need to try as hard when using it. The behavior or skill has become part of your repertoire, and it’s now readily accessible to you.
Mastering leadership takes work but it can also be fun. The most skillful leaders enjoy the process of adding to and refining their repertoire. They view it not as a burden but as core to their personal growth— and as one of the most rewarding parts of being a leader.
Augment, Adapt, Combine, and Borrow
Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch when adding a new behavior to your repertoire. You have plenty of raw material to choose from. Here are four ways to source new behaviors, along with examples:
Augment a strength you already have as a leader
(referring back to Amy from the beginning of the article) “I’m good at coming to a strong opinion quickly with limited information. I can augment this strength by framing my opinion as a starting point, listening to my peers’ perspectives, and asking explicitly for their feedback.”
Adapt a strength from another area of your life
“I can choose to use a playful, light style when facilitating meetings with potential tension— a stance that I can adapt from hanging out with my kids.”
Combine two of your existing strengths
“I’m good at paying close attention to UX details, and I’m good at giving direct feedback empathetically. How might I combine these two strengths and improve our design team’s quality bar?”
Borrow behaviors you’ve seen other people use effectively
“Our COO is great at facilitating conflict and helping two sides see each other’s perspectives. How might I observe what she does and add some of those behaviors to my repertoire?”
The ultimate goal: awareness and choice
Expanding your repertoire isn’t about being someone you’re not or giving up your unique identity. It’s about maximizing your awareness and choice as a leader.
Most of our weaknesses stem from utilizing our strengths without sufficient awareness and choice. This happens because relying on our strengths is the rational thing to do. Our brains think: This approach worked in the past, so let’s keep doing it.
As an early Product Manager at Dropbox, I was great at hearing multiple perspectives and driving a consensus-based decision. This worked when I was building straightforward feature optimizations with less controversy and urgency.
I was eventually asked to lead a holistic redesign of the Dropbox web app. Suddenly, the strength I received praise for became a weakness. My reliance on consensus led to stalemates that slowed our execution progress. At the time, I worked with an executive coach, who asked my team members to evaluate me across 30+ dimensions of leadership. “Makes timely decisions” was among my lowest scores. One person wrote: “Mindy could be more forceful about what is and isn’t a good direction. She is very adaptable and accommodating, possibly to a fault.” My stomach dropped when I read the feedback.
To deliver strong results, I needed to add a new skill to my repertoire: articulating a clear decision with transparent rationale/tradeoffs, even if it’s controversial and disagreeable to some team members. I called this style Transparent Decisiveness.
It was deeply uncomfortable at first, and I questioned if I was cut out to be a product leader. Over time, I experimented with different approaches, and transparent decisiveness came more naturally. In my most recent role at Oscar Health, team members highlighted “fearlessly driving clear decisions” as one of my core strengths in 360 feedback.
With greater awareness of when, where, and with whom my strengths were more or less effective, I could use them more consciously. And by expanding my repertoire of leadership behaviors, I gained more choice in what tools I use when.
As with any skill, leadership can be mastered. The good news: you already have plenty of raw material to build new behaviors and be effective in any situation that arises. With intentional practice, the possibilities are truly endless.
Who writes The Intentional Leader?
Mindy Zhang is an executive coach and former product leader at Microsoft, Dropbox, and Oscar Health. She partners with founders and leaders to build winning products and teams. She believes that leadership is a craft that can be cultivated with intentional practice and feedback. Learn more about her coaching, and get in touch.
A huge thank you to Jordan, Michael, Ali, Charlene, and Foster for editing this post.