Article What Kind of Leader Do You Aspire to Be?

As you consider how to act as a team leader when facing a new challenge, do you find yourself asking: “Should I lead from the front with this problem or should I delegate it to another team member?” You may personally favour one approach over the other when faced with a new challenge and I’d like to explore the intricacies and implications of this decision in this article.

”Here we go again, I guess this mess is our fault, as per usual” The inner thoughts of an employee with a slopey-shouldered boss.

You may agree with my sentiment that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to leadership is too rigid and a lack of flexibility in times of turmoil will usually end in disaster, especially if the leader looks to ship responsibility onto others rather than stepping up to lead by example. Hopefully, you have worked alongside a leader who could quickly weigh up the problem at hand and respond appropriately with either appropriate delegation of responsibility or by taking full control and directing from the front. Then again, maybe you haven’t and you’d like to know what that looks like. If so, please read on.

Leaders like this have always been an inspiration for me. They can intuit the most suitable direction ahead based on the facts at hand and the resources at their disposal. The best leaders quickly go about completing the tasks that their specialisms lend themselves to and they delegate tasks to team members whom they trust will get the work done to the required quality to fulfill the brief. Most of us like working for leaders who are able to overcome a challenge in such a way and if you are like me, you aim to emulate their approach when you are the one plotting the course.

I wonder how many of you have worked with leaders like this though? I also wonder how many of you have leaders who react to challenges in ways that you do not aim to emulate? You know the type, they’re the leaders who, when faced with a problem look to pass the job to someone else, moan about it but do nothing, or simply bury their head in the sand and hope the problem will disappear (and it usually does because real leaders step up and get the job done). I call these leaders ‘slopey-shouldered’. The moment responsibility is put on them it slips right off.

Are Your Shoulders Broad or Slopey?

Next, I would like to consider the differences between leaders with broad shoulders and those whose backs resemble a water slide. Hopefully, this food for thought will help you avoid the pitfalls of being ‘slopey-shouldered’ yourself or give you cause to notice it when your leader isn’t just delegating to help develop leadership capacity in others but rather because they don’t want to take responsibility themselves.

Broad Shoulders: The Pillars of Responsibility

Picture a leader with broad shoulders, someone who epitomises responsibility in its purest form. These leaders are the first to step up when the going gets tough. They embrace challenges and navigate calmly through turbulent waters with an unwavering determination that instils confidence in others. But what sets them apart?

The Buck Stops Here:

Broad-shouldered leaders don't play the blame game. They understand that success and failure ultimately come down to their decision-making and that they are responsible for creating the template for success for their colleagues to act upon. They inspire confidence by taking ownership of decisions and actions and if it goes wrong they own the outcome, sheltering others from blame.

Empathy in Action:

These leaders connect on a personal level with their team members. They take the time to understand individual struggles, extending a hand of support and guidance. If a team member is struggling, they will aim to discover the person’s needs and then give the necessary support to help their colleague out.

Innovation and Adaptability:

Broad-shouldered leaders embrace change and aren’t averse to acting on the ideas of others They see challenges as opportunities for growth and innovation, never shying away from the need to pivot when circumstances demand.

When I think of a broad-shouldered leader, the iconic Elon Musk springs to mind. Musk's broad shoulders are evident in his relentless pursuit of ambitious goals, taking responsibility for any setbacks and always pushing the boundaries of what's possible. Generously, the glory of success is not his alone, he reflects that back onto those he relied on to support his vision and execute his plans.

Slopey Shoulders: The Art of Avoidance

Now, let's turn our gaze to leaders with slopey shoulders, those who specialise in evading responsibility like seasoned escapologists, the Harry Houdini’s of leadership slopeology as it were. These leaders have a knack for passing the buck, leaving their team members to pick up the pieces or looking the other way when their team needs their guidance or support. But what drives this behaviour?

The Blame Game:

Slopey-shouldered leaders excel at shifting blame. They point fingers in every direction, conveniently sidestepping their own accountability and you’d better not highlight the fact that it was their responsibility because it will likely be you who has the finger of blame pointed at you.

Fear of Failure:

These leaders are often driven by a deep fear of failure. They would rather pass the burden onto others than face the repercussions of their own missteps. Perhaps they have had one too many failures in the past and feel that they can’t fail again from fear of the chop. With a leader like this around, you had better be ready to take the blame if something does go wrong because it certainly won’t be their fault.

Lack of Empathy:

Slopey-shouldered leaders may appear detached or unconcerned with the struggles of their team. Apathy will be the order of the day and any emphasis on well-being will only be apparent if it benefits them. They prioritise personal interests over collective success and if any glory happens to come to the team, they’ll try to reflect it all on themselves.

I can think of a few managers and leaders whom I have worked with (who shall remain nameless) who consistently passed on the blame for missed deadlines, never took responsibility for their lack of planning or guidance and certainly never seemed to care less if our teams failed. More often than not, all that could be learnt from these supposed leaders was what not to do.

Reflecting on Leadership Styles

As we explore these two extremes of leadership, it's crucial to reflect on our own leadership styles and preferences. Do we lean more toward the broad-shouldered approach, embracing responsibility and leading by example, or do we find ourselves gravitating towards slopey shoulders, seeking to avoid accountability at all costs?

To support your own development, you could consider the following questions:

When faced with a challenge, do you step up and take ownership, or do you instinctively look for someone else to solve the problem?

How do you react when a team member makes a mistake? Do you offer guidance and support, or do you distance yourself from the situation?

Are you open to change and innovation, or do you resist it, fearing the unknown?

Next up, I’ll try to illustrate the effects the two leader types can have in a crisis situation. The scenario will be an employee strike due to poor working conditions.

What follows is an outline of the steps the broad-shouldered leader might take:

"A worker strike? One week into the job and this happens? Well, it is what it is. a critical time for the company, and the responsibility rests on my shoulders. I can't afford to pass the buck. I need to address this head-on and lead my team through this crisis to get the workers back on side and productive again."

1. Take Immediate Action:

The broad-shouldered leader takes swift action. They recognise the gravity of the situation and immediately gather key stakeholders for a crisis meeting. They know that time is of the essence and a template for resolution needs to be agreed upon.

2. Create Open Lines of Communication:

The leader needs to understand the employees’ concerns and recognises that they must listen in order to uncover the root causes of their grievances. They invite representatives from the striking workers to express their grievances openly. They empathise with their concerns and acknowledge the validity of some points.

3. Collaborative Solutions:

They guide the dialogue towards resolution under the firm belief that they’re all in this together. The leader encourages a collaborative approach, involving workers, management, and possibly third-party mediators to negotiate fair and lasting solutions.

4. Acknowledging Accountability:

They acknowledge responsibility for creating a safe and fair workplace, for all. The leader takes full accountability for past shortcomings in the working conditions. They commit to rectifying these issues and outline a clear plan with timelines.

5. Owning The Problem Through Transparency:

Transparency is seen by them as the key to rebuilding trust. The leader provides regular updates to all stakeholders, ensuring transparency in the resolution process. They explain the steps being taken and the expected outcomes.

In your opinion, how does this approach sound? How could it be improved? How does this approach align with your expectations for a broad shouldered leader?

What follows is an outline of the steps the slopey-shouldered leader might take.

"A worker strike? This isn't my fault, is it? Okay, I had a feeling that things weren’t quite right here for a while but I didn’t do anything wrong. I hope someone else can handle this; I don't want to deal with the mess."

1. Passing the Buck:

The slopey-shouldered leader avoids immediate action and attempts to pass the responsibility onto someone else. They delegate the task to a lower-level manager or hope that the situation will resolve itself. If it doesn’t, step two soon follows.

2. Blame Game:

"It's not my problem; it's theirs." This is a mantra of the slopeologist. The leader may initially dismiss worker grievances, attributing the strike to outside influences or individual discontent rather than acknowledging systemic issues.

3. Delayed Response:

The leader procrastinates in addressing the strike. They avoid direct communication with striking workers, hoping that the situation will fizzle out without their intervention.

4. Avoidance of Accountability:

"If I admit fault, I might lose face." The slopey-shouldered leader hesitates to take accountability for past failures in working conditions, fearing personal repercussions or damage to their reputation or even the sack.

5. Lack of Transparency:

The leader keeps stakeholders in the dark, avoiding open communication. They provide minimal information and may even downplay the severity of the situation to protect their image. At this point, you could expect them to be wearing dark sunglasses to work.

In a crisis management scenario like a worker strike, the differences between broad-shouldered and slopey-shouldered leaders become stark. While the former embraces responsibility, seeks solutions, and fosters open communication, the latter tends to evade accountability, delay action, and perpetuate a culture of blame. The choice of leadership approach can significantly impact the resolution and long-term consequences of the crisis and it becomes obvious that to honour the responsibility given to us, we need to be broad-shouldered if we are to be respected as leaders.

How Do Others See Us as Leaders?

The actions of the leaders affect their teams and what follows is an imagined glimpse of how a key worker at the striking firm may view the situation if it were being handled by the two different leader types.

Here’s an internal monologue of a key worker as they observe the broad-shouldered leader's Approach:

"Seeing our leader spring into action, I can't help but feel a sense of relief. They seem genuinely concerned about our grievances, and that's reassuring. We've been struggling with working conditions for a while, and it's about time someone took responsibility. Their commitment to open communication is a breath of fresh air. It feels like they're trying to understand us.

I appreciate their empathy and the way they've brought all parties to the table. It's clear they want to find a lasting solution, not just put a band-aid on the issue. This transparency is what we needed all along. We've been heard, and that's a good first step. I'm cautiously optimistic about the future."

Here’s how the same employee might feel about the slopey-shouldered leader's approach:

"Watching our leader's reaction, or lack thereof, to this strike is disheartening. It's like they're playing hot potato with the problem, hoping someone else will take charge. They're quick to distance themselves and pass the blame, making it seem like it's our fault, not theirs.

I can't help but feel frustrated by their avoidance of the issue. It's been months, and our working conditions have only deteriorated. They've yet to acknowledge any responsibility or even talk to us directly. It's like they're living in a different world.

Their lack of transparency is infuriating. We're kept in the dark, and it's hard to believe they're interested in a real solution. I wonder if they even care about our well-being at all. We need someone who's actively trying to make things better, not this spineless coward."

During the worker strike scenario, or any challenge leaders face, the vastly different approaches of the two leaders will be observed and evaluated by colleagues. While the broad-shouldered leader's actions inspire hope and confidence in resolving the issues, the slopey-shouldered leader's inaction and avoidance only exacerbate the discontent among colleagues. If you are similar to me you would favour the leader who demonstrates accountability, empathy, and a genuine commitment to finding a solution.

Choosing Our Path

Leadership is a journey, and our choices shape the kind of leaders we become and the leaders we choose to follow. At OurSails, we believe the world needs more broad-shouldered leaders who inspire trust, shoulder responsibility, and guide their teams towards success. As we've seen, having slopey shoulders may offer temporary relief, but they hinder growth and erode trust over time.

So, I leave you with this final question: What kind of leader do you aspire to be? The choice is yours, and it's a choice that will influence not only your journey but also the journeys of those who look to you for leadership.

As we navigate the intricate landscape of leadership, let us remember that leadership is not about the title we hold but the impact we make, the responsibility we bear, and the example we set for others. May we all strive to be leaders with the broadest of shoulders, guiding our teams towards a brighter future.

In the end, leadership is not just a role; it's a way of life, a commitment to excellence, and an ongoing dedication to the betterment of all.

  • Align to avoid confusion.
  • Collaborate to avoid suspicion.
  • Succeed without despair.