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Kindling a Fire: On Leadership

Leadership. It’s a topic that has spurred debate for as long as humans have organized themselves into groups. And in today’s increasingly volatile world, the need for impactful leadership has never been greater. Here at Country Day, our new mission focuses on leadership as an essential aptitude necessary for our students to thrive in a changing world. But what does leadership really mean?

There is no shortage of possible answers to this age-old question. Leadership gurus are a dime a dozen, and not a day goes by without some new theory being touted as the key to transforming organizations, revolutionizing industries, or (at the very least) changing people’s lives.

Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Robert Greenleaf – their leadership philosophies have become well-known throughout the business and education sectors. But the presence of leadership gurus goes back even further – Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, and Cyrus the Great have all had their moments as thought leaders in both the ancient and modern worlds. Some of these ideas are brilliant, others are common-sense notions dressed up with clever marketing, and others appear to be mere passing fads.

So, which one is right – servant leadership, stoic leadership, daring leadership? And which leadership style works best – pacesetting, authoritative, affiliative?

As you can imagine, as a leader whose school is committed to creating leaders, I have been studying this question intently over the past year. And what I have come to realize is that almost all of these theories or styles can be effective at the right time in the right circumstances. But a leader must be carefully attuned to what approach is needed in each specific situation. In that sense, “situational leadership” may be the real answer.

In a now-famous Harvard Business Review study by Daniel Goleman, researchers found that effective leaders don’t simply follow one playbook or use one style. They use many different approaches depending on the context and needs of their team. In other words, adaptability and emotional intelligence were as important as mastery of a single leadership theory.

Goleman’s team studied six leadership styles (coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching) and measured team climate and financial performance for each. They found that four of the six styles led to a positive effect on the team, but that the most effective leaders mastered four or more styles and “switch flexibly among the leadership styles as needed.”

Numerous other studies have confirmed this conclusion, from both the psychology and business worlds. But such flexibility also reflects the practical reality of any modern organization, where more diverse workforces and rapidly changing conditions demand differentiated leadership. A company’s Gen Z employee simply will not respond to the same leadership approach as the long-tenured Baby Boomer. And no leader could effectively shepherd an organization through a pandemic using just one idea.

Importantly, situational leadership need not be inauthentic. In fact, in this respect, we can learn from our gurus. If one leads with a daring heart, as Brown would advise; or puts oneself at risk in order to look after others, as Sinek urges; or begins with a service mentality, as Greenleaf counsels; then a leader can adopt a range of styles that are still anchored to strong values and a sense of self.

So when it comes to your next leadership challenge, don’t search for a single silver bullet or a magic leadership potion. Instead, consider the various leadership approaches as golf clubs to be selected from your bag. Carefully assess your yardage and wind and lie, and then pick the right club for your situation. And lead on!

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the September 2022 edition of the publication.