The age-old debate over whether leaders are born or made often paints a black and white picture of what it means to be a leader—either you are one, or you’re not. As with most things in life, what makes a leader has many shades of gray. In the business world anyone can be a leader in name and title. It’s the effectiveness of your leadership that is more important.

What differentiates effective leaders is not necessarily their philosophy of leadership or personality, but rather their internal “action logic,” defined by consultant David Rooke and professor William R. Torbert as “how individuals interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.” While many remain unaware of their own action logic throughout their careers, those who do try to understand their own thought processes can often improve their ability to lead.

After studying thousands of managers and professionals over the course of 25 years, Rooke and Torbert have broken down leadership styles into seven general categories based on the action logic theory: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist, and Alchemist. In general, each of these categories has its distinct characteristics and strengths and weaknesses.

The sliding scale of leadership

Approximately 17% of leaders make up the least effective of the leadership styles, Opportunist and Diplomat. Both of these tend to result in dysfunctional management (Opportunists) or organizations that avoid conflict until the point of self-destruction (Diplomat).

In contrast, the majority of managers (around 68%) fall within the Expert and Achiever categories. This management style usually results in completely functional and even successful organizations that can deliver on short and mid-term objectives. Unfortunately, they often find themselves constrained when it comes to thinking outside of the box.

Innovation begins to happen with Individualists, which make up approximately 10% of leaders. These are the rule breakers who are able to identify the gaps between strategy and performance within a business and find unique ways to bridge those gaps.

Transformational leadership begins at the Strategist and Alchemist level, but only 5% of leaders fall into these two categories. What sets these leaders apart from the others is their ability to see the big picture and how the organization operates as a whole. Strategists are not only adept at setting an overall vision for a business but are also better able to deal with conflict and handling resistance to change. They are also skilled at understanding the external forces that affect their organization and can see ways in which they may benefit their overall business strategy.

Alchemists, making up only 1% of leaders, are able to reinvent themselves and their organizations in significant ways. They are the rare leaders that have the capacity to lead societal change.

The evolution of a leader to a Strategist and beyond

No matter where you may fall on the action logic scale as a business leader, the capacity for transformation is always there. The key is in honing the essential personal, interpersonal, and analytic skills that will get you to where you want to be as a leader.

Challenging assumptions. Great strategists are good at navigating the balance between idealistic and realistic. Ambitious goals are important to set but they must be somewhat practical. You want 50% growth in profit for the coming year? An Achiever might set that goal and become agitated when sales don’t meet expectations. A Strategist will ask if the goal was reasonable in the first place: Did the number simply derive from last year’s sales? Have we scaled our internal organization properly to be able to meet our numbers?

Interpreting people as well as data. As leaders, Experts often rely on hard data and their personal expertise to rationalize their ideas, but often face resistance when getting buy-in from the rest of the team. This often stems from a lack of emotional intelligence and lack of respect for those they feel have less expertise than they do. Strategists also rely on hard data to drive strategy but use empathy and communication to their advantage to get ideas across and create a better harmony within the organization. They are able to acknowledge negative emotions in others and respond accordingly without letting emotions affect their personal decision-making process.

Anticipating and adapting to outside forces. Strategists have a keen awareness of the trends and transformations that are affecting their industry and market, and they adjust their strategy to adapt accordingly. Strategists are not only constantly engaging with their customers, suppliers, and partners to understand their challenges, but are also taking an objective look at their competition to examine why they are succeeding or not.

Embracing and learning from mistakes. Shaming or punishing mistakes can create a culture of fear within an organization in which individuals will go to great lengths to hide their mistakes rather than owning up to them. Strategists understand that mistakes are a natural part of the innovation process and will work to create a culture that is comfortable admitting when mistakes are made and are able to learn from them.

Aligning diverse views with vision. While setting a vision may be easy, getting an entire organization to follow through on it is the ultimate challenge. A Strategist is a great communicator, skilled in articulating the goals of the company and in engaging with teams and individuals to get their feedback and buy in. The Strategist doesn’t outright reject ideas but is able to find a way to align everyone’s collective experiences to the core vision.

Strategic leaders, strategic organizations. Leadership styles are not just confined to individuals but can apply to entire teams as well. Rooke and Torbert found that the most effective teams are those with a Strategist culture, in which the whole team views business challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Developing a Strategist team will require at least a few Strategist leaders to lead the way. Those willing to put in the work and develop the essential strategist skills will eventually see their organizations evolve in a truly transformational way.

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