Academics will say these are the 4 leadership styles:
- Democratic leadership
- Autocratic leadership
- Laissez-faire leadership
- Transformational leadership
But a decade spent matching the top 2% of executives with organizations has shown us that the process, approach and system executives employ once they’re ensconced in a new leadership role is far more telling.
Put aside democracy, autocracy or laissez-faire. Let’s look at the operative styles some few leaders develop as they become ever more successful.
Some are inexorably drawn to the danger of a company on the brink of failure.
Some excel in roles that demand out-of-the-box thinking and innovation.
Some are driven to growth, continually taking modest beginnings to soaring heights.
Some are wired to advance vast or complex forces beyond personal span of control.
We identify these types of leadership styles as Fixer, Artist, Builder, and Strategist, or FABS for short.
The Most Effective Leaders
Leadership is at the core of how organizations succeed or, more often than not, fail. So how is it that in some cases, a good leader will succeed brilliantly and repeatedly while many others fail to deliver the goods?
In seeking out and deploying top-notch CEOs, CFOs, and other executives into companies around the globe, we learned that screening out the mediocre from the rock stars is not as simple as looking at someone’s resume.
Sure, a résumé reflects someone’s leadership skills, but it’s static, like looking in a rearview mirror. The FABS leadership model requires that we accurately identify proven performers – defined not just by results but their ever-bettering sense of their own applied style – and choice of where and when they will choose to lead. It’s how they jump into action and the process, approach, system, and style, they implement.
Matching an organization’s needs, stage, and size with the exact right type of leader is critical to understanding why some leaders produce genius results in many different situations while others suffer burnout, frustration, and defeat in a work environment.
Introducing the FABS Leadership Styles
Sit four friends—an architect, a chef, a graphic designer, and a financial analyst—around a table on launch day of the hottest new restaurant in town and ask them what they think. Chances are, here’s what you’ll hear:
- The architect might comment on the structure of the building, its space, how the light streams in, and the look and feel of how its configuration serves and welcomes you.
- The chef might focus on the presentation of the meal while identifying the unique flavors and spices at play.
- The graphic designer may first notice the menu and design elements around the room.
- The financial analyst could visualize how much investment went into the restaurant and what kinds of returns success means for the investors.
Your frame of reference colors your perceptions. Likewise, accomplished leaders have a self-awareness—an elemental quality—that defines their most effective leadership styles.
In our quest to define what separates successful leaders from the rest, we identified four styles of leadership, each with a unique mindset, skill set, process, approach, system of operation, and drive.
Here are the four different styles of FABS leadership:
This leader sees what’s broken and one or more ways to fix it. Fixers are drawn to even the most dysfunctional or toxic situations where the short-term outlook is dire. They bring order out of chaos, cut through mess, conserve cash and resources, and figure out what needs to be expanded, cut, streamlined, and reorganized to get to something better.
Send a Fixer into a company that is hemorrhaging, and they know how to stop the bleeding. The worse the circumstances, seemingly the better for the expert Fixer.
Called into tough situations, some Fixers may appear ruthless, but the Fixer doesn’t lack sympathy or concern for the well-being of the team members. It’s not that a Fixer doesn’t understand the value of constructive feedback, employee engagement, and a participative decision-making process.
Far from it.
Rather, this type of leader knows that the final decision can mean life or death for the company and there is little time to waste.
This leader comes out of left field and works best when starting with a blank canvas to create a work of art, whether product, service, technology, message, campaign, platform, company, organization, or movement.
Artist leaders envision the finished work before everyone else. As leaders they are able to enlist, enroll, sell, and revolutionize. They trust their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and out-of-the-box ability to innovate and move a team or organization past lethargy or stagnation.
This is the type of leadership that drives revolutionary change and creates the new and different, whether at a product, company, country, or world level.
It can be a long road for the Artist whose seemingly crazy ideas may be met with laughter, until a moment comes when the late adopters finally say, “Oh, now I get it.”
This leader excels at ramping up a company, product, or division from small—even a handful of employees—to multimillion- or multibillion-dollar success. Doing that takes a level of scrappiness and big picture vision for what the fully constructed end-product looks like.
The Builder loves growth mode. Expansion into new markets and reporting increases far beyond market averages is the goal. They have an innate ability to build teams and create systems and processes from scratch.
A master Builder is a huge asset to organizations that need help getting past a ceiling in their growth, but they may not necessarily stick around when markets and systems become mature and established. Once size, maturity, and complexity of the organization has moved beyond a personal span of control, a Builder hands off the project and moves on the next market opportunity.
This leader operates at scale, leading an organization with a diverse agenda, navigating complexity where direction is far beyond their personal span of control. Strategists enhance structure, fortifying repeatable, defensible systems with long-term competitive advantages.
This is alignment leadership at its finest. Steady and detailed in approach, quickening the pace of the organization is the goal. They provide mission and purpose that an organization—whether a team of 1,000 or 100,000—can be held accountable to.
Strategists are coaching leaders with a short-term and long-term vision that managers, teams, and divisions will turn into strategy, tactical plans and execution throughout the organization.
It used to be at large organizations that the top job was secured by a bureaucrat – the last survivor in an encrusted, entrenched, or bloated organization where the last man standing wins. But today, no person or organization, big or small, is immune to market forces. The FABS Strategist oversees a complex and vast landscape with far more stakeholders than ever before. It is the Strategist’s job to ensure there is always forward movement, that a quickening cadence is set in all aspects of the organization, knowing that even established market leaders can be ripe for disruption.
Your Highest and Best Use
As consumers, we demand specialization in most aspects of modern life. For example, in healthcare there are 120 specialties, from anesthesiology, cardiology, and dermatology to immunology, oncology, neurology, pediatrics, and urology. The benefits of such specialization over the past seventy-five years are so vast as to be astounding, from better health to relief from pain and suffering to dramatically increased longevity.
We are now in such a beneficial place that you would no more expect your obstetrician to operate on your heart than a criminal defense attorney to file patents for you.
Why then, in the management of organizations, is leadership approach still so vague and ill-defined?
We applaud the appearance of an all-encompassing skill as, well, all-encompassing. But it is not the same as highest and best use, or the feeling we get when we’re operating in a role that leads to feelings of endless expansion, fascination, learning, flow, accomplishment, capability, and never-ending improvement.
So while you may believe that endorsing an autocratic leadership style or a laissez-faire leadership style or a democratic leadership style among your managers and leaders in your company will be the key to success, the bottom line is that to produce truly transformational, industry winning performance, your leadership team must be seeking each their own highest and best use.
Power comes from recognizing, accepting, and acting wholeheartedly in alignment with your unique wiring. This alignment, however, need not be selfish in the sense of accounting only for yourself.
Effective leaders have the emotional intelligence and self-awareness needed to be able to tap into their best abilities and operate in their most authentic leadership style while showing qualities of loyalty, mentoring, and sacrifice.
This excellence is a force multiplier everywhere from the boardroom to the shop floor; from the surgical operating suite to the halls of Congress; from a soccer field to a social network.
Rejecting One Size Fits All
We observe time and again executives firing on all cylinders, diving into a dominant FABS leadership style, not hunting around the dial searching for anything other than their intrinsic self. The opposite are those who spread themselves thin, force-fitting into all kinds of situations, personas, and roles, trying on common leadership styles to find one that works.
For the ambitious, the temptation is real. The more accomplished we become, the more we can and should stretch. But saying yes to any opportunity that comes our way, trying to expand in all directions, all competencies, and performing equally well no matter what? That tactic only works until it breaks.
“We can customize our behaviors, but it’s a catch-22,” says leadership expert and organizational psychologist John Behr. “We want to be realistic and learn to give and take in our organizations or in our life, but not give or take in a way that’s not at least fairly close to an authentic expression of ourselves. Otherwise it’s not sustainable.”
Great leaders are rich with abilities brought to bear as the situation demands and with seeming excellence and authenticity no matter the challenge. Nonetheless, we suggest leaders have a dominant, go-to mode that becomes richer, more powerful, and valued over time and across accumulated experience.
No leader is perfect in all situations.
In our work screening executives, we often see leaders who should be at the most powerful point in their career. Instead they are transactional leaders, diluting what could be their genius, saying they can do it all, when in reality their focus is not focus, just a hodgepodge of skills and blurred desires. They lack clarity and the ability to reject what is not a fit.
When we are honest with ourselves, it is easier to acknowledge that while we can, in fact, weave in and out of different roles as an organization grows, pivots, and hits inevitable bumps, we don’t enjoy all modes equally well; and more to the point, we don’t excel equally.
Testifying at a trial in July 2021 to defend his decision to combine Tesla and SolarCity, Elon Musk was asked about running the company day-to-day. “I rather hate it and I would much prefer to spend my time on design and engineering, which is what intrinsically I like doing,” he responded.
He sums up in one sentence what we have found is the key mindset that over 50 percent of all leaders get wrong over the course of their careers. Musk was candid in both what he hated, and what he knew of his intrinsic nature.
Finding Your Path
Successful people make career decisions that cut off options. The word “decide” comes from the Latin for “to cut off.” You might feel that your first job was an accident or stroke of luck, but when you look back on a successful career, choices over time become more intentional. It’s as if a magnetic attraction was pulling at you, to encourage, nurture, and advance one path over another, one type of work, role, or place over all others.
Now if at this point you’re thinking, Oh, I get it, they’re saying I’ve gotta stay in my lane? The answer is no. You determine your lane, your route, your life trip, and it could have lots of detours or dead ends. But at some point, success demands you find your personal freeway, with no speed limit whatsoever.
We also aren’t saying that you should end up performing like everyone else, choosing, say, a participative leadership style over a bureaucratic leadership style. That’s not it at all.
Rather, we’re saying you need to find your uniquely-you leadership style, the one that allows you to operate at your highest and best use.