Most leaders cling to their natural leadership style. They reason, “That’s who I am. I can’t change my nature.”
Big mistake. We cannot change our nature, but we can change our behavior.
For decades, managers have relied on a battery of tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Insights Discovery System, to understand their personality profiles. These are useful starting points, but only a beginning.
Triple Crown Leadership requires getting beyond a personality profile:
- The shy foreman must speak up in front of large groups.
- The quiet administrator must be a courageous “voice of one” in a staff meeting, even when others resent her for making waves.
- The reflective thinker must make a quick decision when circumstances demand it.
- The dominating vice president has to learn to shut up and listen.
It turns out that leadership has a hard edge (“steel”) and a soft edge (“velvet”).
In steel mode, leaders exercise authority and power—within ethical boundaries, of course—to get results. Steel requires confidence, discipline, and toughness. Steel leadership involves getting results, executing through the hierarchy, and committing to tough decisions and forceful actions.
- Steel leaders expect team members to execute plans on schedule and within budget. They make difficult, sometimes controversial, decisions. They must be willing to go against the tide and risk popular support.
- Steel leadership is not bullying, intimidating, or manipulative. It does not use fear to maintain power. It is not the iron fist within the velvet glove. It is not autocratic rule cloaked within a false, soft exterior.
- Steel leadership should be “rigorous, not ruthless,” as Jim Collins has noted. What we call “Triple Crown Leaders”—those who commit to building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations—deeply value their associates, even when they must invoke steel. What differentiates Triple Crown steel from intimidation and bullying is intent.
Triple Crown Leadership flexes to the steel edge in service of building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization. It deploys steel sparingly while staying within ethical bounds. In steel mode, the leader is the “Chief Execution Officer.”
In velvet mode, leaders are on the soft edge of leadership, employing collaboration, relationships, and stewardship. They use persuasion, not position power. By using velvet, leaders empower colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators.
When flexing to the velvet edge, the leader shows humility, even vulnerability at times, not pretending to have all the answers. She shows confidence in the team, trusting that together they can solve any problem. She reinforces that Triple Crown Leadership is a group performance in which anyone and everyone can lead at times.
- Velvet leadership involves patient listening and connecting with people. It celebrates diversity in people and thought.
- Velvet leadership trusts, thereby, building trust. It facilitates creativity.
- Velvet leadership entails asking questions, nurturing, praising, and often saying “thank you.” It encourages fun and relieves stress.
- Velvet leaders let others lead, building their capabilities. They tolerate mistakes to let people learn, so long as those mistakes do not jeopardize the organization’s survival.
This leadership-sharing approach develops others. In velvet mode, the leader is the “Chief Character Officer.”
Flexing Between Steel and Velvet
In Triple Crown Leadership, the key is not just steel, or just velvet, or some murky middle ground between them. The key is to understand the context and people, judging each time whether to move toward the hard or toward the soft edge. There is continual movement back and forth. We call it leadership “flex.”
Triple Crown Leadership is not about a steel leader with a velvet colleague, or the reverse. Such a “good cop/bad cop” pairing can be schizophrenic for an organization, creating confusion and slowing it down.
How do leaders determine when to flex their leadership approach? There are two primary considerations for when to flex to steel or velvet: the nature of the situation and the types of people involved.
Anchoring in the Shared Values
As leaders flex, how can they avoid being viewed as inconsistent and damaging their credibility? The key is always to operate in accordance with the organization’s shared purpose and values—and to do what is required to build an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization.
Such anchoring builds organizational character. To avoid confusion, leaders should take the time to explain, especially when they are invoking steel, why they are taking those actions and how the decision remains consistent with the purpose, values, and Triple Crown quest.
- Are you more hard- or soft-edged in your natural leadership style?
- How can you practice flexing from your natural style, explaining what you are doing to build trust?
- Who can assist you in flexing your leadership style?