by Achim Nowak


November 15, 2020

Few things are more frustrating for talented professionals than hitting a ceiling in their careers because they lack the appropriate leadership style.

This statement in an article from the current issue of Harvard Business Review (“How to Develop Your Leadership Style,” Peterson, Abramson and Stutman, HBR November/December 2020) leaps out at me. It grabs me because the executives I support hit this ceiling, again and again. The ceiling is ubiquitous. It is the Achilles heel of the wildly gifted professional.

Petersen and company aptly call this ceiling a squishy challenge. Yup, squishy it is. It goes to the essence of who we are and how we show up at work. It gets very personal.

Let’s get squishy for a moment, shall we?

Don’t confuse who you ARE, at your core, with your leadership style. Who we are may best be described as our personality. Shaped by specific personality traits. Our cognitive preferences. Many of these traits are to a large degree immutable.

Our leadership style, however, is distinct from personality. Influenced by our preferences, yes, but distinct. It is what we do, how we behave, how often and when. And it is majorly adaptable.

Here’s the Authenticity Trap:

We confuse our leadership behaviors with the essence of who we, deep down, know we are. This confusion is understandable. Our behaviors tend to feel like “well, this is who I am.” Other folks reinforce this perspective because they know us primarily by our behaviors. They habitually validate this perception of ourselves. Well, you’ve always been a little pushy. You’re pretty arrogant. You’re meek and never challenge anything.

Behaviors. Not necessarily who we are.

That’s where the leadership ceiling comes in.

Petersen and colleagues delineate a whole set of what they call “status markers” that either serve or don’t serve us as we advance to the most senior echelons of an organization. Status markers are the specific micro-behaviors we engage in that signal how we embody our high-status, high-visibility roles. The authors appoint these markers to two broad buckets:

  1. Signals that emphasize authority (the authors call these “powerful” signals), or
  2. Signals that emphasize relatability (the authors call these “attractive” signals; I prefer the word "relatable.")

When we hit the leadership-style-ceiling, our signals don't work for the people we need to play with well

Remember. Micro-behaviors are micro-behaviors. They are not who we are. Don’t confuse these behaviors with authenticity. Emulating the style of others or flexing your own in new ways does not make you're inauthentic; it means you’re growing as a leader.

Has someone given you feedback that your leadership style needs to change? Did that conversation become a little squishy?

Well, let’s do a little bit of decoding. Let’s unpack some of the things you are likely to hear when they tell you that your leadership style needs to change.

  1. You’re not seasoned enough.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. You’re acting too much like a junior contributor. You tend to repeat other people’s ideas. You don’t take conversational risks. We’re not sure what you stand for. You don't own your experience or expertise. While you sometimes sound passionate when you speak, your passion does not convey a sense of authority.

Solution: Use more declarative statements. Take a stand.

  1. You’re intimidating.

Challenge: TOO POWERFUL. Your body language is at times towering. Your glance a little cool and detached. You frequently interrupt people. You like to have the last word. You always sound very sure of yourself, and it always seems like you have already made up your mind. And because you truly do know a lot of things and often are the smartest person in the room, others just give up.

Solution: Speak less and listen more. No matter how much you think you know.

  1. You’re boring.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. Your voice sounds a little flat and monotonous. We cannot tell what you're excited about. We feel like you’re hiding what you really think and feel. We don’t know who you are, and we have no idea what you ultimately believe in. You are just a likeable and non-descript presence in the room.

Solution:  Use more intense words. Choose bolder language. And speak a little louder than you habitually do.

  1. Your team is afraid of you.

Challenge: TOO POWERFUL. You have a strong vison for what you want your team to do. You know what strategies work best. Some things simply aren't negotiable. You're not inclined to pretend you don't know what needs to be done when you, in fact, do. You have always appreciated leaders who are bold and fearless. That is YOU.

Solution:  Ask more questions. Make fewer statements.

  1. You’re too nice.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. You value getting along well with others. You excel at giving compliments. You don't like conflict or having constant arguments with people, and you have always had great respect for individuals with more authority or experience than you. There is no reason why we can't be civil and agreeable with folks, even when their perspectives irk us. You prefer building bridges to being a bull in a china shop.

Solution:  Minimize deferential address.

Here is a lesson I learned in an earlier career, several decades ago. I spent a few years training actors at some well-known acting schools in Manhattan. Actors yearn to be authentic in the roles they play. They are much less obsessed with how authentic they are in their own lives. Why? They have been to acting school. They know that when they laugh, that can be authentic. When they cry, authentic as well. Or when they rage. Actors study acting so they can be authentic in a multitude of ways. It's called having a range.

You don't ever want to be a known as an actor with no range.

Your leadership ceiling? That is the ceiling you hit when you mistake your current behavior for authenticity. There is our core. And there are all the micro-behaviors we perform, moment by moment, every single day. Better leaders perform these behaviors with a wider range of choices. Just like a great actor, they have a more expansive authenticity range.

Yes, this gets squishy. The moment we start to transcend a neatly bound sense of who we are, we discover so many more ways of behaving AND feeling authentic, at the same time.

How utterly liberating that is. How very ceiling-crashing.

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