Why you should develop your leadership style (and how to do it)

So, what started as your seed of an idea or an exciting business concept has become a fully-fledged business. Credit to you for growing and taking on staff while some other small businesses are regrettably taking on water.

But what of your leadership style?

Although some people are born with natural leadership ability, it’s a generally accepted premise that leadership is acquired or at least developed through experience. That’s why you can’t, as a small business owner, go on automatic pilot and assume you can simply manage your people organically, intuitively, reflexively. Not everyone has an innate leadership gift. Us mere mortals must work at developing and articulating our leadership style.

Why develop a leadership ethos or “personal brand”?

Drive engagement, team spirit and service with a compelling “why”

Lots of cultural research points to the idea that Australians are engaged and motivated by a social or moral cause. Just making money for the boss is not a motivator. Helping staff understand the social or moral “why” of your business can really help them engage with the brand or business. It helps them find their “discretionary effort”; contributing because they want to and not because they have to.

This discretionary effort is what makes staff stay that extra few minutes when you’re busy, solve problems you may not even know about until they’re fixed and treat your customers well even when – in fact especially when – you’re not there. High engagement makes money and builds customer base.

Let me give you two quick examples of a compelling “why”.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge developed a set of leadership principles after looking into what leaders do that separates high performing from low performing organisations. They first met Phil Turner when he was Facilities Manager at Raychem. He got inundated every day with what his staff thought were petty, tiresome routine maintenance chores from demanding internal customers. The more he spoke to these customers the more he realised they cared about their space. They took pride in their surroundings and needed things to work in order to achieve higher order things. Phil was able to inspire a shared vision around clients’ care of their space with his people.

In another example given, staff in a university mailroom thought that all they did was sort mail and push it around the university. A new leader arrived and helped them see they were keeping the university connected. He had them brainstorm all the negative impacts and flow on consequences that would occur if that team was not there to do its job. Their care and attention to detail dramatically improved after this and team esteem rose sharply.

Improve capacity and capability by attracting and retaining great candidates

Dismissing employees is and should be difficult. It must always be legally defensible.

If you’re smart, you’ll understand job requirements, recruit well and set your people up to win. It’s not a given that candidates will have your motivation, work habits or personalities conducive to the roles you’re recruiting. So, if you think that good staff are hard to find, it makes logical sense to develop a leadership ethos and culture that leads to:

  • great candidates beating down the door to come and work for you
  • impressive candidates saying “yes” when you offer them the job
  • talented staff who want to stay longer even in an era where people leave jobs more readily than ever before in favour of something they perceive as better.

Creating an uneven playing field for your staff can have significant impacts on your business. I am not trying to scare you into treating your people well, but sometimes you might favour some staff over others. Sometimes you can get careless, tired, overworked and short tempered and take it out on the people around you. Paying staff a wage, even a good one, is not a licence to take your stresses or frustrations out on them. Unhappy staff leave and high staff turnover costs you time and money. Recruitment websites carry employer rankings which can affect your ability to attract the best staff. A tweet from a dissatisfied employee can go viral and cause reputational damage.

Being mindful of the way you treat your team can save a lot of time and money later. It may even save your business.

Positively impact consumer behaviour via excellent reputation and personal brand

How do you want your business to be known? What types of customers do you want to attract? What do you want them to say about you? Not just to your face but online to other would-be customers.

Consumer psychology supports the premise that many would-be clients and customers will make up their minds about who to do business with based on a range of intangible yet potent issues.

The worst allegations that can be levelled against any business are probably sexual harassment, bullying, labour exploitation and delayed or underpaid wages.

Public perception is the public reality. You can make a poor decision in the moment that has far reaching repercussions. Running an ethical company and making sound decisions is therefore essential in how you do business.

This will almost always pay dividends even if that isn’t immediately obvious. Occasionally someone will take advantage, but if you do the right thing by people, even those who you think may not deserve it, staff watch and listen and take heart believing they work for a fair and reasonable employer and consumers ascribe you good brand value.

Read: Engage staff and reduce staff turnover 

Close up of a woman's hand as she writes in her journal.

How can you develop your self-awareness and an intentional leadership style?

Even if you’re convinced that developing your leadership style and personal brand is worthwhile, if not critical, how do you do it?

Strategies to develop your self-awareness

  • Keep a journal. It can be helpful to capture events, thoughts, behaviours and identify patterns. Note, a journal is not a food diary! (you can find some tips here)
  • Ask a trusted friend, or even better a coach, how they would describe your style at work. Not only how you behave in “peacetime” but how you act under “combat conditions”. Does your behaviour slide unintentionally when you’re under pressure, frustrated or angry?
  • Tune in regularly to your thoughts and feelings. Learn how to recognise when you are stressed. Be extra vigilant about poor behaviour as staff will either model it, disrespect you for it or both.
  • Do you delegate clearly or vaguely when overloaded? Leaving lots open to interpretation and then getting frustrated, testy or impatient when someone doesn’t do what you wanted is unfair when it’s your fault for not giving good instructions.
  • Do you know what your strongest values are? How do you react when they are compromised? How consistently do you apply your values to all staff? Do you play favourites and treat people differently based on friendship, likeability?
  • Do you try to ensure your life, as much as you can in the start-up or ramp up periods, is still in balance? Do you know when you are exhausted or close to burnout? What are the signs and symptoms? Do you meditate, eat well and exercise? Or do you rely on medication, alcohol and vast amounts of carbs or Red Bull to keep you going? Research shows more enduring benefit from a regular weekend off here and there than a long hiatus to go overseas. This might be beneficial, but we shouldn’t reach burnout before we take a short break to recharge. Of course, this is harder to do if we don’t have someone we trust to delegate which is another reason to recruit well and coach even better.

How can you use leadership to create and strengthen great culture?

For our purposes let’s define culture simply as “the way we do things around here”. Note, I’m not defining culture as what we say we stand for but what we actually do. Think of the old adage “actions speak louder than words”.

As you begin your company journey, think about what you will and won’t tolerate in your business and communicate that in positive and inspiring terms. Of course, that means you have to model such positive behaviours, but who said life was fair or easy?

Ask yourself:

  • What do you consider to be ‘above’ (acceptable) and ‘below’ (not acceptable) the line behaviours?
  • Do you give your people role clarity, a compelling “why”, and the necessary skills and knowledge to set them up to succeed?
  • How good is your company induction? Do you always rely on the same people to orientate others? Have you provided them with quality coaching to ensure they are teaching the right things? Do you show your appreciation for them in some tangible way for trying to do the job whilst teaching others at the same time?
  • Could you develop a small set of trademark behaviours like the high performing football clubs do? These behaviours create clarity for your people but also serve as a benchmark to help determine when we should or shouldn’t act when people infringe
  • If anyone does mess up, what is a proportional response based on what you said you would or wouldn’t tolerate or how you may have handled the same or similar issues in the past?

While strong decisive action does send a message, you should never scapegoat anyone. The punishment must fit the “crime” and not appear to portray favour or unduly harsh measures based on a good or poor relationship with the person in question. That doesn’t mean you should be scared to act for the right reasons and on the right things. Our action or inaction must be defensible to the reasonable person on the street once they know the material facts and circumstances of the case.

To ride the waves rather than get dumped by them we need to be intentional, have a learning/growth mindset, be open-minded to new ways of doing things including seeking input from our own people and having them feel valued.

If we default to assuming the good rather than the bad and continue to work on our leadership and great culture, people will be more likely to live up to our expectations.

Leanne Faraday-Brash

Organisational Psychologist and Principal

Leanne Faraday-Brash is an organisational psychologist and Principal of Brash Consulting specialising in leadership, high performing teams, change, employee relations, ethics and EEO (discrimination, harassment and workplace bullying).