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Doing the Leadership Tango

Marko Poplasen/

Effective leadership is akin to a tango. Everyone knows who is the formal leader before the dance begins. But once the action starts effective leadership reflects a flexible dynamic moving partnership, quality of a relationship. Knowing your ABCs—“awareness” of your “behavior” and its “consequences”—is a key leadership building block.

As an adjunct faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute, I teach a leadership course called The ABCs of Effective Relationships, which focuses on the skills and tools for translating common sense into common practice. The aim is to narrow the natural gap between knowing what to do and how to do it.

The opening exercise allows participants to reflect on their own experiences with the tango of leadership. First they are asked to identify a person they would find themselves most likely to follow, and then they rank the importance of eight sets of behaviors that their ideal leader should possess. The responses weave an interesting story, raising several leadership challenges and implications.

Here are the behaviors and the percentage of participants who rated them as the most important:

  • Prescribe: My ideal leader offers suggestions that get right to the point. Tells me clearly what he wants from me. Offers suggestions that build on my ideas. States his needs and expectations reasonably. Keeps my attention on issues he feels are important. Offers mutually beneficial exchanges and incentives. (25 percent)
  • Ask: Seeks out the basis for my decisions. Asks for my suggestions, including questions such as “Could you give me a few examples to help me understand?” “How can I help?” “How can I support you?” Asks what we can learn from a mistake rather than who is to blame. Asks me directly about the effects her behavior has on me. (18 percent)
  • Inspire: Describes possibilities in ways that encourage me to share his enthusiasm and commitment. Uses metaphors, analogies and vivid descriptions to heighten my enthusiasm about possibilities. Stresses the importance of pulling together to achieve common goals. Emphasizes the values he has in common with me. Speaks from the heart about his values and ideals. Encourages me to do more than I thought was possible. (18 percent)
  • Appreciate: Expresses her appreciation when I do something well and dissatisfaction when I don’t. Tells me what she likes about what I’m doing and what she doesn’t. Gracefully accepts feedback and apologizes for her mistakes. (17 percent)
  • Describe: Clearly explains the basis for his decisions. Uses well-reasoned arguments to support his proposals and counterproposals. Uses well-reasoned counterarguments when he disagrees with me. Openly provides me with information I might not normally have. Admits his mistakes. (15 percent)
  • Attend: Gives me the time and attention I need to get my points across. Pays careful attention without interrupting when I’m trying to make my points. Focuses on the concerns that I express. Backs off if the timing is not right. Faces up to important issues. Remains patient and receptive when I disagree with or challenge her points of view. (11 percent)
  • Understand: Communicates his understanding by paraphrasing what I have said. Acts as a sounding board to help me clarify my thinking. Summarizes areas of agreement or mutual interest. Tries to clarify and explore points on which they differ or disagree with me. Communicates her understanding through her tone of voice and nonverbal ways. (4 percent)
  • Empathize: Communicates his understanding of how a situation makes me feel. Helps me clarify my feelings. Shows a genuine desire to find out how I feel. Supports me when I’m facing difficult situations. Gives me the confidence to disclose how I feel about myself. (0.6 percent)

The behaviors reflect a simple relationship model comprising eight styles and two energy modes. "Describe," "prescribe," "appreciate" and "inspire" reflect push energy—being understood by you and getting my points across to you. "Attend," "ask," "understand" and "empathize" reflect pull energy—striving to understand the points you are trying to get across to me.

Two conclusions jump out. First, the four pull styles are of significantly lesser relative importance than the four push styles. Second, there were no clear standout behaviors within those subsets. That means successful leaders should treat people according to their individual needs and be flexible. But achieving this has its challenges.

Leaders must be aware of their follower’s style, needs and preferences. Traditional 360 assessments are not designed to facilitate this level of leader awareness. Why? Because their employees—like themselves—are unique individuals. In other words, the No. 1 behavioral choices their tango partners will have of the ideal leader will have the same variability as their leaders. Anonymous aggregated feedback can leave leaders asking: “How should I strive to change my own behavior to meet the diversity of needs among my followers?”

A global across-the-board change will not address that reality, and it can make it worse. A leader’s behavior may be a solid fit for Person A but a total misfit for Person B. A behavioral shift based on anonymous aggregated data that is known to reflect important individual preferences can upset an already well-oiled apple cart.

Seeking behaviorally specific, direct face-to-face feedback from each of their tango partners is common sense. It takes courage to put it into common practice, but that’s what real leadership is about.

Irv Rubin, president of the management consulting firm Temenos Inc., is an adjunct professor at the Federal Executive Institute and a former associate professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.          

(Image via Marko Poplasen/

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