‘What’s your Leadership Style?’

Speaking recently at a conference, I was asked, “What’s your leadership style?”

Right away, Wharton’s Leadership 101 course came to mind. Where’s my course packet? What were the four types of leaders—or were there three? Would anyone really admit to being an authoritarian?

I save course packets, but I can never find them when I need them. Maybe they’re in a box in the attic.

Unlike many Wharton students, I found the Leadership course to be one of my favorites. I can still hear some of my classmates muttering, “You can’t teach leadership in a classroom,” but for some reason I enjoyed learning about what people did well and how they could have responded better in certain situations.

On a recent episode of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Zakaria quickly threw out the three leadership styles before starting the show:  charismatic, authoritarian and bureaucratic. But he really didn’t delve into them much. He just kind of posted them up, as if it were an obligation, then moved on to asking leaders their advice. One of his guests, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggested that leaders should get comfortable with what’s unpopular. Louis Gerstner, former IBM Corporation Chairman of the Board, said that to be an effective change agent, you can’t want everyone to like you. Christine Todd Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey and former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggested that leaders are people who are good at convincing other people that THEY want to do what you want them to do. This was all good advice, but my favorite response came later from Whitman, who was asked, “Is it different being a woman?”

“I don’t know,” she quickly responded. “I’ve never been a man.”

Ever since I was asked that question—“What’s your leadership style?”— I’ve been trying to come up with a better response than “collaborative.” That’s so boring. It’s probably more accurate to say, “I do what I think is right,” and, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Is that a leadership style?

Well, it’s not quite as clever as Christine’s answer. So I’m still on the lookout for a more refreshing response.

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