I was lucky enough in the past few weeks to have had an invitation to the Irish Management Institute’s virtual presentation with Jacob Morgan. He was speaking about his book “The Future Leader”, in which he describes four leadership types and five key behaviours. During the talk, I was reminded of a conversation I have had with a friend many times about leadership styles, particularly that of the Sherpa.
Jacob spoke about the “notable nine”, being the mindsets and attributes required for different types of leaders. Of those nine, four are leadership styles:
- The Global Citizen
- The Servant Leader
- The Chef
- The Explorer
He also described leaders as lighthouses, standing apart from the tumult of everyday seas and lighting the way to the future. I like the lighthouse analogy, in part because it reminds me that bad leadership can lead to ruin.
Of the four leadership styles, the one that made the most sense to me was the Explorer, which brought me back to thinking about Sherpas.
The Explorer is described as needing to embrace new ideas, practising open curiosity, essentially breaking ground for their teams. I’ve written about this before. The leader is in a position to map out the team’s course and is excellent at keeping spirits up when dealing with the unknown.
My friend Jill, who introduced me to the idea of the leader as a Sherpa, would undoubtedly like the echoes here. Sherpas are renowned as elite mountaineers, a useful skill when you live in Nepal’s mountainous regions. Leaders with a Sherpa-like skillset safely guide their teams to the organisation’s goals. They bring them through perils, uncertainty and sometimes despair to see the same vistas and achieve success together.
Sherpas are incredibly hardy mountaineers, capable of sustaining pace and making progress in the most difficult conditions. Operating at extreme altitudes can be hazardous or deadly even to the most prepared, but Sherpas are esteemed for their ability to safely guide expeditions to the highest peaks.
Even with that skillset, disasters can still occur. Laurence Gonzales writes about this in a very compelling way in his book “Deep Survival”. When they do, it is the leader’s job to address the situation capably and calmly and bring the situation to as positive a conclusion as possible.
While I have always liked the idea of the Sherpa leader, I believe that different circumstances require us to adopt different mindsets and use different skills. Defining ourselves by a single style may disable our ability to adopt other approaches as required. The true value of the Explorer mindset to me is the ability to adapt to changing situations and leverage our natural curiosity to develop the right questions.
By starting with the right understanding of our current scenario, building the right questions and using our broader skills to navigate the unknown, we serve and motivate our teams. The people who work for us take their cues from our behaviour and attitudes. If we are hangdog in the face of challenges, how can our teams be optimistic? If we display a lack of curiosity, how will our teams learn? And if we fail to understand our people, how will we know who may need additional support to get across an obstacle in their path?
Good leadership is adaptive, and a blend of many styles and attributes. That said, I think we could all use the skills of the Sherpa or Explorer more regularly to lift our teams to success. Lead on!