To ask what your model for leadership is is not just an idle question. It was the sole question for the final essay in one of my leadership classes at Columbia Business School — one of the best classes I’d ever taken, including all undergrad and graduate school classes.
Models influence your behavior strongly. Since people tend to do what they think is best (though not always what you think is best), at least I believe they do, their models for things determine how they act. If you have a model that leads to effective behavior, you might lead easily and well without having to try or think hard. If you have a model that leads to ineffective behavior, no matter how hard you think or try, you may never behave effectively.
Leadership being an abstract concept, everyone’s models are liable to differ significantly, potentially leading to wildly different behaviors. I mean, think of something concrete, like a tree or a book. Different people will have different models for trees and books, which will lead them to act differently regarding them. Consider how differently a biologist, child, lumberjack, or painter might model a tree.
I can name several models for or related to leadership — command-and-control, top-down, lead by example, and learning organization, for example.
If you adopt a model and don’t realize it’s only a model — that is, you think it’s the One True Way — you won’t be able to see advantages or use other models. If you are flexible among models you can use what works best based on the situation.
Being able to change your models — flexibility in your models — enables you to change your behavior quickly and easily.
If you don’t recognize you are using models at all, you lose the ability to realize you can work other ways.
I can’t help but see great value in my professor’s choice of final essay question. I hope it works for you.
The geek in me likes great precision in language, especially in important issues. If you don’t care, feel free to skip this part. Or maybe just enjoy my indulging myself on two issues.
First, if you didn’t know a major theme of the class was to learn about models and apply what we learned to leadership, in particular to creating our own model for leadership, you might not have liked that the question pre-supposed you had a model. In a courtroom a lawyer would object, “Leading the witness!” (no pun intended on “leading”). Since the class did have that them and application, the essay question worked.
Second, given the value I put on flexibility in models we have for things — that I suggest choosing them based on the outcomes they’re likely to bring about — shouldn’t I ask what are your models for leadership in the plural, not singular?
I prefer to think of having one overarching model for leadership that includes many models within it and that each of them may change, including the overarching model itself.
That description may sound too fluid, but I find the concept of model fluid. I find trying to nail down the concept too tightly makes you think of it too rigidly, whereas keeping the concept fluid forces you to keep thinking of it flexibly.
EDIT: I reviewed the class syllabus and the final essay wasn’t a question. He just gave the title, My personal, evolving theory of general management. I contend my question is close enough.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees