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Searching for the “just right” leadership approach in this era

Leading through this crisis requires more than a one-dimensional approach to leadership. Organizations need leaders who can blend multiple styles.

6 min read


Searching for the "just right" leadership approach in this era


For hundreds of years, individuals known as alchemists searched in vain for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that was imagined to have the properties essential for turning basic medals into gold or generating the elixir of immortal life.

Today’s equivalent search is for that one leadership style capable of turning crisis into survival and then prosperity.

Much like the alchemist’s search, finding the “just right” leadership style in today’s maelstrom of issues and wicked problems is elusive. Yet, for those striving to lead successfully, there is hope, and it comes in the form of a blended, adaptive model of leading. When mixed in the right proportions for the situation, the properties of leading we describe as wartime, servant and resilient prove capable of transmuting crisis into hope and progress.

Consider the leadership environment in our world

If you elevate your altitude and survey the environment, the variety and volume of problems are breathtaking in a negative way.

  • People are frightened about their health, lives and their jobs.
  • Many businesses — large and small — face an existential threat and must adapt or die.
  • Everyone is learning to work, teach, govern and engage in new ways.
  • The mirage of seamless, low-risk supply lines stretched across the globe has been exposed for everyone to see.
  • Frustration and disgust over inequitable and unconscionable practices in society and our organizations have reached a fevered pitch. The bill for these past practices is due.
  • The pursuit of shareholder wealth as the unimpeachable purpose of a business is being challenged with a shift to a broader stakeholder focus.

Add in the challenges posed by global terrorism, geopolitical fractures, the environment, and others, and you find a series of wicked problems where there are no single or even visible combinations of approaches that promise a positive outcome.

Leading has been challenging enough over the past two decades as the macro forces, mainly driven by technological change and globalization, created tectonic shifts in how business was conducted around the world. Now, the stakes are raised, and it’s not clear what the leadership approach is that’s “just right” for this environment.

It turns out; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a blended, adaptive model that draws upon the strengths of at least three distinct leadership styles.

Exploring 3 styles of leading

1. The wartime leader

The wartime leader in our organizations is driven by the need to fend off existential threats.

This leader generates a laser focus on the mission and draws upon the Commander’s Intent to provide clarity and acting parameters. Short-term sacrifices are made to improve the odds of success for the whole, while communication, feedback and learning operate at hyperspeed.

The wartime leader is working the clock and pushing people and teams to do the impossible with the resources available. This individual leads through purpose focused on a specific adversary.

2. The resilient leader

In my article “Toward a New Style of Leadership—Leading for Resilience” in SmartBrief on Leadership, I defined leading for resilience as “making the strategic, structural, operational, and talent decisions that enable organizations to survive a shock and sustain their mission.”

The resilient leader focuses on a longer time horizon than the wartime leader and is continually working to see around corners and identify emerging opportunities and threats.

This leader inspires individuals to think differently and experiment to find “next” for the business.

3. The servant leader

The servant leader is all about vanquishing fear and reducing the organizational friction that gets in the way of people doing their jobs. The focus is on eliminating bureaucratic bottlenecks and streamlining decision-making in pursuit of a better future.

The servant leader’s hallmark is empathy, focused on meeting people where they are, and offering them the support of a healthy working environment where they are motivated to chase their potential.

While the term “servant” might connote weak leader to some, the reality is this leader is the strongest of the three types, striving to lift the organization through and with people constantly.

What’s the right leadership approach for this era?

We’re fighting a multifront war in our organizations as we strive to keep our workforces engaged, make sense out of situations, reinvent and survive. Many leaders have adopted a wartime posture, which makes sense. However, it’s not sustainable and not enough for what’s in front of us.

As some new definition of normal emerges — hopefully, driven by a vaccine — the wartime footing must give way to the effort of designing our organizations for “next.” The resilient leader is looking for new opportunities in a re-emerging but different world while simultaneously rethinking and investing in creating business models that hedge against future disruptions.

And then there are the people: the caregivers, medical providers and everyone else in every organization who are shell-shocked from the sudden, adverse changes from the familiar world to one that is, on a good day, frightening.

The same leader above, who is already leading the wartime charge and designing the organization for resilience against future challenges, must do the most important job of all: regain the creativity and ingenuity of the people. Enter the servant leader.

3 styles, 1 leader: Is this possible?

My answer to whether this blended, adaptive leadership style is possible is a qualified “Yes, but it’s not easy.” I’ve seen examples in my community: with small-business owners who transformed their businesses, as well as organizational leaders doing the same in various private and public institutions. Their success in leading during crisis while building for the future and keeping their colleagues engaged and inspired gives me hope.

However, we need to manifest this blended, adaptive leadership approach at scale across all sectors of society.

Bottom line

We’re playing a complex game of tridimensional chess, where pieces move horizontally and vertically on multiple levels in our world. The leaders who bring the emotional intelligence and mental acuity to adjust and adapt their style on the fly, based on the needs of the people and organization, are people we desperately need.

Unfortunately, there is no Philosopher’s Stone for developing leaders or turning crises into prosperity. This is going to be hard.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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