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Practitioner or Performer: Which Leader Are You?

After over a decade of working with executives, one interesting delineation has risen time and time again — the divide between leaders who practice and leaders who perform.

Practitioner leaders demonstrate strong content knowledge, excellent teaching skills and are widely recognized within the context of their industry for their direct contributions and impact. These individuals are seen as experts and mentors from whom many people can learn, and are talented at stepping in to offer their expertise, regardless of what needs to be done. Practitioner leaders have observable, practical skills, and have been promoted into their leadership role because of it, but may lack the “oomph” that attracts employees and grabs attention from the start. If their reputation precedes them, it is likely for their contributions to the industry and not (solely) their formidable charisma.

Performance leaders take the stage. Known for their intensity, confident and direct demeanor (executive presence, as it has come to be known) and their ability to instill that confidence and inspire emotion, these leaders are entertaining and influential, but potentially less helpful to employees and the sustainable advancement of the organization. If employees are in need of purposeful, mission-oriented action and a leader with the know-how as well as the know-what, these leaders may struggle to maintain attention or sustainably drive their people forward. As opposed to practitioner leaders, whose skills and output are clear to the people who work for them, performance leaders may frustrate their teams by oversimplifying, overgeneralizing or telling but rarely doing, leaving people asking, “But what does he/she/they do?”

While these anecdotal experiences may suggest practitioner leaders are favored, there are, as always, other sides of the coin depending on context and need. The key is fitting organizational needs with practitioner or performer leadership styles. In companies where employees are mostly self-lead, are heavily resourced and have near total autonomy, performance leaders are apt at swooping in as a caffeine shot to the soul to provide a heavy dose of theatrics and motivation. They thrive in this space and find joy in their ability to motivate, but are also at risk of asking themselves, “What purpose do I serve here?” — if self-awareness is high — or of getting bored and restless, unable to put their finger on what, exactly, is missing.

When practitioner leaders make an attempt to act as performance leaders, they may fall flat, coming off as inauthentic, awkward or as showing false bravado. This can lead to mistrust that is hard to repair. If they can authentically lead from the place of their demonstrable skill sets and a helpful, let’s-get-things-done attitude, they are successful in inspiring, motivating and teaching their people to sustainably move toward the company goals and vision.

Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum and, like most things, an effective and positive combination of each is ideal.

Consider the graphic below. Without judgement, notice the key aspects of each. Which type are you? If you resonate with both (most of us will), what’s working for you? What could be improved?

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