Not a People Leader? Here are Two Other Types to Consider.

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Here’s a favorite pastime of mine: When someone signs up for my newsletter and takes a moment to introduce herself.

In the first email that a new subscriber receives from me, I ask, “What is your biggest concern about becoming a leader (or being a better leader)?” I like it when they ask a real thought-provoking question, like this one from Gillian, a Marketing Specialist with a financial firm. She asked: Do you have to manage people in order to be a leader?”

In my reply to Gillian, I shared a lesson learned after speaking at a biotech company’s leadership retreat for high-potential women employees last year.

I was leading the group through an exercise to find their career “sweet spot” and identify their leadership brand. When one of the participants asked, “Can anyone be a leader?” one of the senior leaders, VP and GM Amy Butler, raised her hand and shared this thoughtful reply: “There’s more than one type of leader.”

“I once read that there are three types,” she continued. “There are people leaders, process leaders, and thought leaders. You need to figure out which one you are.”

I really appreciated that. When it comes to leadership, much of what is written, taught, and discussed is focused, perhaps too narrowly, on “people leadership”, as if leadership is limited to managing people and teams. Those who aren’t “people leaders” are oft overlooked and underrated, and may never come to realize that they, too, are leaders.

You also can’t be all things to all people. Discover what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and find collaborators, other leaders, whose strengths complement your own. Personally, I like to think of myself as a “thought leader” or a subject-matter expert. I work with a terrific process leader. Thankfully, she is also great at leading herself, which makes up for my self-perceived deficit in the people leadership department.

Are you a thought leader, a process leader or a people leader? Read on to discover the type of leader you are.

1) The Thought Leader

What is a thought leader? I asked Denise Brosseau, author of “Ready To Be a Thought Leader?”

“Thought leaders are the trusted opinion leaders and go-to people in their fields of expertise,” she said. According to Brosseau, who I like to think of as the thought leader of thought leadership, these are more than just “ideas people.” “They galvanize and inspire others with innovative ideas, and help them scale those ideas into sustainable change,” says Brosseau. In this way, a thought leader’s reach can be much broader than their team or company.

You might be a thought leader if you’re passionate about your area of expertise, have a thirst for learning, and love to share your knowledge with others. You’re always looking for ways to apply your knowledge to make a difference, and you light up when you discover a challenging problem to solve.

2) The Process Leader

Process leaders are strategizers, planners, and optimizers. They take large, complex, business goals and show how they will be achieved. A process leader’s role is to clarify what needs to happen, when it needs to happen, and then implement it, which they do by orchestrating the right people, resources and activities, linking every part of an organization’s effort back to the shared goals. They use their influence across organizational boundaries to get the job done — whatever it takes. They take responsibility for making it happen.

You might be a process leader if you love to attack a stretch goal by breaking it down into an achievable plan. You can’t help but can see how the big picture and the finer details fit together. You have a passion for excellence, and are always looking for a smarter, faster, more efficient way to get things done.

3) The People Leader

There’s much that has been written about this type of leader, so I’ll keep it brief and share some of my favorite observations.

The best people leaders take time to understand others, identifying their strengths and exploring what motivates them. They know how to effectively coach underperformers, reward excellence, and bring out the best in people. These leaders build people up and help them grow. They also ensure that the right people are in the right roles, and that everyone’s working together as a team, focused on a common goal.

You might be a people leader if you enjoy motivating, empowering, and developing others. You care about the wellbeing of individuals and the team. There’s nothing you enjoy more than seeing others succeed.

In business, we need more than just one type of leader. We need thought leaders, process leaders, and people leaders. Which one are you, or which one would you like to become?

Jo Miller

Jo is Founding Editor of Be Leaderly, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., and creator of the Women’s Leadership Coaching® system, a roadmap for women who want to break into leadership. She has traveled in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and workshops, and counts being the only Aussie women’s leadership coach in Iowa among her unique “koalafications.” Learn more about Jo’s services at womensleadershipcoaching.com and follow @jo_miller on Twitter.

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  • Lane

    Thank you, Jo, for the great read and perspective on “alternate” leadership types. I identify with the Process Leadership role. I look forward to sharing your article with my mentorship group later this week. I think it sets the stage for a very interesting conversation.

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