They say when a young pitcher starts strong in Major League Baseball, it’s because he can throw a smoking fast ball and wicked curve ball.
Eventually, however, batters get on to him and can anticipate those two pitches. Eventually, if that pitcher wants to have a long, successful career, he will need to learn to throw a change up “knuckle” ball and a slider from time to time, in order to throw off experienced batters. The pitcher’s repertoire of pitches will need to expand.
In leadership, we all start out with a certain style that suits us well. Initially, those we lead may be impressed by our democratic, coaching, affiliative or authoritative styles — which style usually depends on our unique personality and individual gifts. We are effective, and our identity becomes wrapped up in one strong pitching style.
For example, those who value collaboration will lean towards democratic styles and ask “What do you think?”; others who are change catalysts and are naturally self-confident will tend toward authoritative styles and say “Come with me!”; others still who are empathetic, value self awareness and want to empower others will reflect a coaching style and say, “Try this.” (see Daniel Goleman in Leadership that gets results HBR March 2000, p.43 for a summary of several styles of leadership). “What do you think?” “Come with me!” “Try this.” Each phrase is like a pitch we like to throw.
Eventually, the context of our leading changes: The culture becomes more demanding. Or certain resources become scarce. Or the vision of an organization changes. “What do you think?” may no longer be appropriate for a culture of an organization that needs more of “Come with me!”. For leadership to be effective in a changed context, the kind of leadership that is needed must change as well. If the leader hopes to stay in the game for the long haul, she will need to develop and master leadership skills not used at the start.
Leaders that are effective in the long run know which ‘pitch’ to offer at the right time. They have at least four pitches up their sleeve. They are open and willing to learn more, and develop their leadership. They are prepared to meet the challenge and adjust to changing times. Because they know that practising only one pitch for all occasions will result in ineffective leadership that will get no results nor buy-in from those whom she leads.
Though daunting and overwhelming the task of expanding one’s leadership repertoire, leaders are, at the same time, not alone. Leadership is a partnership because, as in baseball, the catcher works with the pitcher to determine which type of pitch would optimize potential for success. The pitcher and catcher communicate before the pitcher decides what to do before each pitch.
Likewise, the leader reads the context, then collaborates and consults with trusted partners on the team to determine how to approach a challenging situation. Leaders must ascertain what they need for support, and ask for it. Leadership is not a solitary process, but one that has many resources and people from which to draw inspiration and find the courage to practice, and get better with each pitch.
It’s time to throw the ball. Game on.