More important, what should it be?
There is a fundamental choice that leaders make–consciously or unconsciously–when leading people. You either lean toward orienting around tasks or prioritize supporting people. Understanding how these dynamics work will help you not just become a better leader, but also build a better executive leadership team for your business.
Let’s start by defining what I mean by “task oriented” versus “people centric.”
1. Task oriented
If you’re task oriented as a leader, it means your priority is on driving outcomes. You use data to help you make logical and objective decisions, and you hold people accountable to their results. Some might say you are like the Vulcan Star Trek character Spock; no one is going to accuse you of being soft and cuddly. I often think of the military when it comes to a real-life example of having a task orientation. The goal is what matters most. If you need a hug, you’re probably in the wrong place. But if you love to compete for a goal, you can thrive under a task-oriented leader.
2. People centric
As the name implies, people-centric leaders prioritize the selection and development of the people on their team. You could think of someone like Jim Collins, who popularized the phrase “Get the right people on the bus” in his book Good to Great. A people-centric leader believes his or her job is to build the best team possible, point them in the right direction, and then get out of the way. As a result, people-centric leaders tend to create strong cultures where people are supportive, nurturing, and more forgiving of one another.
So, which style is better or more effective at building companies?
The reality is that the best companies have a blend of task-oriented and people-centric leaders. The strongest leadership teams are thoughtful about bringing the right balance into play.
In fact, depending on the circumstances at hand, the best leaders are often able to blend characteristics from both leadership styles–what we might call “situational leadership.”
But it’s also possible to find success by doubling down on just one of these approaches.
I remember attending a class at the London Business School where the professor was discussing this very topic. He then shared a case study about a company where the entire leadership team–the CEO and the entire C-suite–were all task-oriented leaders. No one had a people-centric approach, which, in this professor’s opinion, made it a terrible place to work.
But that’s when one intrepid student raised his hand and had the temerity to ask what kind of results that company had? The professor then had to sheepishly admit that the company produced phenomenal financial results.
The point is that you can be successful by using only one leadership approach–at least for a while.
As another example, I was talking to the CEO of a company who is now faced with shifting its major annual conference to a virtual one. The conference has traditionally been very profitable for the organization. But, thanks to the pandemic, they need to change everything–from sponsorships and speaker lineups to registrations in order to make the event a success.
To head the work, the CEO chose a task-oriented leader–who has done a phenomenal job in making the shift. But there has been a cost: Other people inside the people-centric organization feel this executive hasn’t been very engaging or collaborative in how she has gone about her job. In fact, she was rough and a hard taskmaster, but she got things done.
My advice for the CEO was simple: “Horses for courses.” In other words, given the time constraints with the conference, he had to entrust the work to someone who could get the work done on time. This wasn’t the time to take time to build consensus and soothe egos. He needed a task-oriented person on the job.
On the other hand, the CEO is also dealing with the important work of trying to diversify his workplace. In this case, it’s critically important that he choose a people-centric leader to head those efforts because of the human capital issues involved in making those kinds of sensitive organization changes. He needs someone who will listen and work collaboratively in making those changes–and not just push those changes through like a task-oriented leader might.
So, consider how different challenges require different leadership skills when it comes to tasks versus people and how that might help you put the best person on the job–or to find someone who can bring a blend of those two skill sets to inspire the team to follow and respond.