Which one are you? Can you be both?

Some years ago a colleague (let’s call her Katherine) and I were discussing leadership attributes of well known CEOs and comparing and contrasting their leadership styles.

The talented “Leader at a Distance” may not be what they seem

One of the CEOs we discussed was an outstanding communicator. He was inspiring and charismatic and greatly admired by many people across the large organisation that he led. The trouble was, there were many stories circulating about what he was like when you got to know him, and some of these stories did not reflect well on him at all.

Katherine said to me at the time, he is an outstanding Leader at a Distance. But as a Leader up Close? Not so much.

She mentioned that she often thought about these two leadership personas of Leader at a Distance, and Leader up Close, and that this particular CEO excelled at being a Leader at a Distance. For whatever reason though, the closer you got to him, the more the inspirational leader drifted out of focus.

The talented “Leader Up Close” can struggle to amplify

The opposite is often also true. The leader we know personally can be warm, engaging, inspiring and even vulnerable. But they struggle to scale this leader persona onto the big stage in how they communicate with large, diverse audiences.

Is it possible to be skilled at both?

Does being skilled at one, effectively exhaust our energy and capability at the other? Or is it that we expect too much of those whose leadership exists in a goldfish bowl, where any of us would struggle to withstand such close scrutiny.

Leaders are all of us

It can be tempting when thinking of examples of leaders who disappoint us to to point to their failings. As in the example above, it can be easy to diagnose the problem that this CEO wasn’t trustworthy. But is it really that simple?

Often our pedestal based expectations, and our dissections when leaders slip up, ignore the reality that leaders are drawn from all of us. They are as talented, deeply flawed, kind, unkind, selfish and altruistic as we are. Those of us not in high profile roles mostly manage to make our mistakes out of the spotlight, yet CEOs don’t have that luxury.

Thinking of both scaling and focusing can be helpful

Using the “up close”, and “at a distance” lenses can make what might otherwise be seen as a character flaw, into a leadership learning framework.

As a leader I have found this framework useful in thinking about the different styles needed for distance, and those that are best for up close. How does a leader scale authenticity and vulnerability? How do you bring that great clarity that charismatic leaders have to 1/1 conversations? Just thinking about it this way has offered me insights on how I can continue to learn and grow as a leader.

I like to ask what can I learn from the leaders who have the ability to flex between the styles, but importantly, what can I learn from those that can’t flex, and how can i better understand what constrains them.

Too often we are binary in our perspectives on leaders

Good leader, or not.

Good communicator, or not.

Great communicator, but I can’t trust him.

Whether or not these labels are true, there can still be much to learn in the nuance.