Leadership Style Colors

Originally posted Jul 9, 2018

Search for “leadership styles” on Google, and you’ll find lots of different articles describing the various types and numbers of leadership styles. Here are some examples of articles that say there are five, six, seven, eight, nine, and twelve leadership styles.

So what’s a leadership style? When you think of the managers and leaders in your life, you’ll probably notice that they “show up” differently at work. Some might be more authoritative, or more heartfelt. Some might cut right to the point, others have a strong narrative style when they share information or try to motivate their team. Wikipedia defines leadership style as “a leader’s style of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people”.

I don’t believe there’s a finite set of available styles for leaders. But it is certainly handy to have a shortcut for describing your style, and how you might adapt it for different environments, or different teammates, or different end goals.

Building on many other people’s work around visual leadership traits, I’ve started to refer to a rainbow of colors to represent different leadership styles. This is far from a complete list, intentionally—what I love about colors is that they can be blended and renamed at will. During my one-on-one coaching sessions and manager roundtables, it’s been handy to name a color as a shortcut to describe a style that feels natural, scary, challenging, inauthentic, etc. to someone as a leader, and that color can be totally custom to them.

Colors are cultural. In the following list, I’ve shared a rainbow of leadership styles that works for me, so that you have a starting place if you want it—but I encourage you to create a framework that works best for you! (More on creating your own below)

Red A bit of anger, frustration, edge, or urgency
Orange Cautious, hesitant, tiptoes, low-risk
Yellow Lighthearted, effervescent, cracks jokes
Green In tune with feelings, loving, high EQ
Blue Calm, cool, collected, steady
Purple Creative, flowy, great at storytelling
Brown Adds (and lives in) nuance, complexity, or ambiguity
Black Blunt, unfeeling, no nuance, cut and dry

These are the questions I love to ask folks when we talk about their style:

Using the above color names and definitions as an example, my default leadership style is definitely blue. I didn’t really choose it intentionally—it’s just what comes most naturally to me! I picture them as colorful playing cards; after years of management and leadership experience, I now feel comfortable playing a red card, or a black card, when the moment calls for one. The one that’s hardest for me? Definitely yellow.

Getting familiar with different styles

It’s totally natural to embody one a lot—that’s your style! But it’s important to be aware of the other styles/approaches available in your leadership toolbox. A strong leader understands that different styles can be valuable when an environment or situation calls for it. As Herminia Ibarra says in my favorite article on this subject, “Small changes—in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact—often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.”

It may feel inauthentic to project a different style than the one that comes naturally to you. I get it! We trust leaders who appear authentic and honest, and it can be unnerving when you don’t know what to expect out of them. But sometimes, people need to hear different words, or see a different energy.

Let’s just pause here to acknowledge that there is a LOT of biased stuff wrapped up in this for members of underrepresented groups. Here’s an article called “Our Biases Undermine Our Colleagues’ Attempts to Be Authentic”. If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, I trust that you are already deeply aware of how people perceive your leadership style, and what’s safe (or not) for you to experiment with at work.

Switching it up

Let’s say a leader is bubbly and lighthearted when they ask someone to stop interrupting their teammates in meetings, but the person doesn’t change their behavior. If that leader continues to be bubbly and lighthearted when they deliver the feedback, will it land differently with the person who needs to change their behavior? Probably not. Constantly approaching the same situation with the same leadership style will rarely get new results; ask yourself, what does this particular situation, or person, or environment, need from me as a leader?

There are situations that call for urgency and bluntness, and other situations that call for empathy and active listening. Switching up your energy, the way you phrase your words, what you’re asking for, or how curious you are about those around you can totally change how your teammates receive you and your message.

Maybe your comfort zone is embodying a sense of urgency, and this situation calls for cautiousness. Maybe your comfort zone is swimming in a sea of nuance and complexity, but this environment calls for urgency and swift decisionmaking. Maybe you’re a leader who loves to talk about how people are feeling, but what your team really needs right now is bluntness and directness about your organization’s strategy.

People will notice and respond to a change in your style—this can be a good or bad thing! Strong leaders understand the spectrum of styles, and know when is best to embody or project each. They might still lean on the one that comes most naturally to them, but they also understand the nuances (the pitfalls, the energy drain, the effects on those around them, and when they’re most effective) of the rest too.

Homework

As a coach, I love giving homework that feels like a bit of a challenge to help folks learn and stretch and grow as leaders. Choose your own adventure below!

Experiment with styles

Pick a style that’s hard, or that doesn’t come naturally to you, and try it out at work. Observe the effects of it on those around you. Observe how it drains or refills your energy. Pinpoint the situations in which this style could be beneficial to embody. See what else is in your toolbox as a leader, and see how you might grow by using these different tools in different situations.

Create your own list

As I mentioned above, colors are cultural. My list may not work for you! And using colors as a framework might not work for you either. Some people love visualizing hats that they take on and off. Some people might prefer animals, or a compass, or they hate metaphors. What framework works best for you?

Think about the leaders that you see, and write down the different ways their styles or approaches manifest at work. What are the effects of their styles on you, or on the people around you? Which styles or approaches appear closest to yours? Which styles do you want to try out? What does the resulting list of styles look like?

Name your own style

If your natural leadership style is absent from these descriptions, or the color I use doesn’t match up for you, how would you define your approach?

And lastly, some links to help you explore this topic further (and with tons more nuance!):

Lara Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.