Your fantasy leadership self
Who are you really?
A few years ago I visited Iceland. I fell in love with the sparse land and the hungry ocean. I also fell in love with a gorgeous wool cape. While shopping, a stylish woman next to me tried it on. She looked so cool as she swung it over her shoulders, knotting it at her waist. Unconsciously, I wanted to be cool like her. I bought it, stuffing it into my already too full suitcase.
I wore it twice.
I found the sleeves awkward. My bag constantly fell off my shoulder as I navigated subways and city streets. It hung in my closet unworn for two years. While it was gorgeous and unique, it didn’t fit my lifestyle. I think I had a fantasy of who I wanted to be— an effortlessly stylish woman who always looks pulled together. That fantasy clashed with who I really was—a leadership coach who loves fashion but often pulls something out of the closet at the last minute because she’s immersed in her work and is now running late. I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I sold the cape to someone for whom it was perfect.
Trying to be something we’re not happens to leaders too. When we become leaders we cross into a new landscape. Some differences are easy to spot — more autonomy, a new title, more responsibilities. We also change tribes which means our relationships with others and ourselves changes. The early days of leadership are a liminal space. We’ve left our old tribe and are adjusting to a new one.
Faced with all sorts of “firsts” in a leadership role, we might wonder if we’re up for the task. Imposter syndrome lurks. We look around for information on how we should act. There’s a lure to assimilate, to fit in. We want to belong.
We pattern match. We try to emulate other leaders we think are successful, often well-known ones. A common example is Steve Jobs. To reduce decision fatigue and focus on innovation, he wore the same outfit day after day. Many have lauded and imitated him, the most obvious example being former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Others might follow Bill Gates style of taking control to make sure things get done right and on time.
Imitation isn’t just a form of flattery, it’s an attempt at finding an internal sense of focus and power. There’s a certain amount of this behavior that is normal and healthy. Pattern matching makes us feel like we know how to act, increase predictability and in turn, make us feel more in control. When we pattern match or imitate we’re trying to learn. This type of mental modeling can also be a way of fitting in, of belonging. The draw is powerful.
There’s a shadow side to acting from a page taken from someone else’s script. Trying to follow a script can make us act in unnatural ways. It feels false to us and others. Acting unnaturally causes stress. It can actually make us feel less confident rather than more. Others can find us phony, hindering our ability to build trust.
A frequent mistake I see is leaders thinking they have to be strong, never show vulnerability, and take all the responsibility on themselves. This leads to isolation, pressure, workaholic tendencies and not asking for help. It’s also a negative experience for the team. There are some whose natural style imbues strength and grit— it’s just not the only way to add value.
A leader I know tried to adopt this style despite being more of a bridge builder in their natural style. Instead of working to build a stronger team and system, they worked long hours tackling every issue, taking on all the responsibility. Four months into their role as CTO they were on the verge of burnout. A much needed break helped them see the mismatch in their behavior vs their natural leading style. Luckily they recognized it early and were able to make changes before the behavior became too damaging.
Pattern matching, imitation and the acting of comparing ourselves to others makes us look outward for makers of success rather than inward. Comparing ourselves to others causes us to disconnect from ourselves and with others. Looking to outside information for cues on how to behave is a place to visit — it’s not a place to permanently live as a leader.
While it’s tempting to borrow our leadership style from others, there isn’t just one that works for everyone. You can get results from a variety of ways. We need leaders that are calm and confident, those who have a way with the team and those who give us grand visions. The best leadership teams have a number of different styles. It’s a matter of finding the one that allows you to contribute to the results through your best expression.
When assessing our leadership style, we need to start inside ourselves. We need to remind ourselves who we are as people, what we value, our principles, what our experiences have taught us. Then we need to ask ourselves how that informs who we are as a leader, the value we bring. Leaders can’t only look inside though, they’d miss important cue from the market environment and from the team. It’s just that we need to start inside to understand our motivations and the value we bring and then marry that to the external conditions. Navigating leadership well means finding balance between looking outside for cues and inside for our motivations.
Not sure if you’re caught in pattern matching? Pay attention to what you say to yourself. If you find yourself saying, “Real leaders….” it’s a sign you’re comparing rather than finding your own true style.
What else to read
The various roles that leaders play.
The danger of comparing yourself to others.
Why Dennis Crowley stepped down from CEO of Foursquare.
How liminal space is different from other places.
The inspiration for this post came from my Leadership Archetypes Workshops. The framework is designed to help leaders understand their own leadership style, how to gain influence, work more productively with peers, and get results at an organizational level.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.