You Wear Only One Leadership Hat

Some people talk about leadership hats. Each hat has a label: supervisor, consultant, coach, mentor, parent, friend, etc. Working with people they switch hats, moving fluently from one to another. Changing hats may make sense to you, but it confuses the relationship you have with people. There’s a better way.

I observed a team meeting a CEO led. “I’m going to take my CEO hat off,” he said motioning with his hand, “and put on my employee hat. As a fellow employee, what would you like to say to me?” Crickets. No one spoke. Of course they didn’t because he’s still the CEO regardless of his hat metaphor and hand motions!

You Wear Only One Leadership Hat

The hat you wear is a leadership role, not a leadership function or style of interaction.

Your hat is the highest authority role you have with a person, regardless of the style of leadership you use with them. If you supervise someone, you can use a consultative style with them on a project, or coach them through a situation, but the hat you wear remains unchanged: Supervisor.

If you are a CEO, you are always a CEO to your employees, even if you bump into them outside work. You may socialize differently with them at church or at your kids’ sports game. You may treat them like a Friend in those settings, but you are their CEO regardless.

Parents confuse their role and leadership styles. We want our children (especially teenagers) to like us, hang out with us, and talk to us. So we treat them like Friends. Until they want to do something we can’t allow and we go back to being a Parent and say “no.” Our kids know we are always a Parent, even if we don’t.

Changing hats is confusing to those who follow you. They always see your leadership hat squarely on your head. Or worse, they become convinced of your new hat and are shocked when you change your back to your previous (and real) leadership hat.

Integrate Multiple Leadership Styles Into Your Role

You can’t easily change your role with people, but you can use different styles of interaction with them. In fact, great leaders have an array of leadership tools and approaches they call upon depending on the situation and need.

Let’s go back to Parents of teens. As my kids reached their teen years, I increased the amount of listening and questions I used when interacting with them. I didn’t abdicate my role as Parent, but I chose a more coaching style of communicating with them. As a result, I showed the respect they wanted from me and our relationship has remained strong during these transitional years.

It’s the same as I lead my organization. I solicit other people’s input on organizational decisions. I listen and explore their ideas, but I don’t put the decision out there for a vote. I maintain my role as President and make the final decision.

Successfully integrating multiple leadership styles while maintaining your leadership role is mostly about your mindset.

  1. You won’t always be liked. The need to be liked is one of the main reasons leaders try to shift their role.
  2. You don’t have to be a dictator. Because you have authority, doesn’t mean you get to tell everyone what to do. People want freedom to think, decide, and work without someone micromanaging them.
  3. Stay flexible. You can and should shift between leadership styles depending on the situation and the person you’re working with.
  4. Set expectations. Before discussing a new direction with your staff, set expectations saying, “I’d like your input on this change that is being considered. I’ll be making a decision about this by the end of the month.” This way, people clearly understand what is being asked of them.

More important than an egalitarian, we’re-all-buddies approach, people want to know what they can expect of you as a leader. By not changing leadership role hats, we maintain expectations. In adjusting our leadership style, we remain flexible to the needs of the person and the situation.

Question: Where have you seen changing leadership hats go wrong? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    One thought on “You Wear Only One Leadership Hat

    1. Great point, Keith. Thanks for sharing that. For leaders, coaching, mentoring, counseling, teaching, training, listening… are all leadership tools we use according to a person’s moment or a collective situation.