Don’t be a lion! Some thoughts on leadership styles

One of the directors I used to worked with often compared the leadership system in the organization to a group of lions. Senior lions are responsible to teach the junior lions everything they need to know. Junior lions are given certain tasks they can contribute. Senior lions lead by demonstration. Junior lions watch and learn.

A lot of companies apply this principle of junior staff learning by following the footsteps of more senior people. While learning by imitation usually works out fine for both human and lion babies, I prefer a different approach that I experienced very early in my career. When I was working on my first pitch, the creative director said “Oh, by the way, you are going to present this to the client.” This sentence changed completely my mindset and commitment for this job. Instead of doing my best to complete my assignments and then watching her, how she presents and sells the project to the client, I started to completely own the project and my responsibility. My learning curve suddenly grew by far. And in the end, we managed to win this client.

I think a great leader is not walking in front of you, showing you how it is done. A great leader stands behind you and makes sure you understand the common goal, but you find your own way to solve the challenge. “See that hill over there in the distance? This is where we want to go. Now go.” If you get too far off the path a great leader helps you to get back on track, but without stepping into your work. She can give you tips and hints whenever needed, but most of the time you are finding your own way but you can rely on someone watching you from behind. This concept is also referred to as “transformational leadership” if you are interested in doing some further reading.

While from a perspective of the learner this is my preferred way of being led, I do find it much harder to adopt this style when I am in the position of leading junior people myself. You have to be able to let others take a different approach to the one you would have chosen yourself without nervously jumping in and saying “hey, let me show you…”. I think, having someone step in and intervene, can make the other feel a little disempowered or patronized. Of course, it is easier and feels safer to just show how you would do it and have the other person then take the same steps. You have to be able to stand some uncertainty, while the junior person is in the process of figuring things out. So yes, it is much harder. But on the other hand it can be very inspiring to see how other people do things differently and still reach the goal where you wanted them to be.

Image credit:

Stephan Wieser

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