Wearing Different Hats

by Stephen T. Messenger

January 1, 2021

I have three baseball caps in my house.  One is a clean tan Army hat that I wear outside in public at places like sporting events and beach gatherings.  This reminds me that I am a military officer both on and off duty and represent the profession of arms.  The second is my old, washed out Army hat.  I put on this hat when I exercise, take a long run, or cut the grass.  I know when I wear this one that I am about to do some serious work and sweat is inevitable.  The third is a light gray Life is Good hat with a “Grateful Dad” caption.  This hat I use when I play with my kids.  It reminds me that my kids are a blessing, and I have to enjoy every moment with them as soon they will be moving out and on their own. 

When I put them on, these hats help frame my mind.  I know that my attitude running a sprint workout does not necessarily work well when playing with my eleven-year old.  I need to have different styles of interaction in different settings.  I have found this analogy true in my leadership journey as well.  Many times, different leadership scenarios require wearing different hats.

I once started leading an organization with significant morale and cultural problems.  The team was individually very competent in their requisite skills, but it was a very top-down driven organization that stunted developing future leaders.  This team needed someone who fostered leadership journeys, empowered decision making, and challenged them beyond what they thought was possible.  The hat that I needed to wear was extremely specific to improving the culture, not in accomplishing goals or meeting metrics.  Every day, I knew that to create lasting change, I would need to embolden them to take ownership and teach them to lead well. 

Another organization I walked into was one with struggling performers and poor teamwork.  More than half the team was purposefully failing to meet goals and perform within the required standards.  In this case, the team needed a disciplinarian.  By nature, I do not enjoy being the bad cop nor continuously holding people accountable.  However, instead of using skills that I am comfortable with, I knew I had to put on my authoritarian hat.  By doing so, I spent the first few months determining who wanted to stay and meet the standards and who would be leaving the company either by their own choice or termination.  Ninety days later, we had a team that was happy to see problem-performers depart and work together to meet company objectives.  While I did not enjoy wearing the disciplinarian hat, I had to put in on temporarily to build a functioning team.

Wearing different hats is a challenging endeavor.  We are all valued programed differently through our unique leadership journeys to see, hear, and react to situations in a similar way to the last time.  After all, if it worked before, why would it not work again.  Yet, every situation we encounter requires a distinctive leadership nuance to solve a problem.  It requires us to assess our leadership portfolio and know what skills to use and when: negotiate or direct; take bold steps or be conservative; drive change or build on current successes.

This task becomes even more complicated when we have to wear multiple combinations of hats at the same time.  When dealing with individuals, wearing the right hats can be fairly straight forward.  An employee performing admirably needs to see your thankful and motivational hat.  It is up to you to know when it is the right time to add another layer of increasing goals, challenging high performers, mentoring her for future positions.  If an employee is struggling, you may need a disciplinarian hat coupled with either an encouraging instructive hat or improvement or, eventually, a riot helmet as you walk down a path to termination.

Where it becomes more difficult is in large groups where it is hard to be both a motivator and a disciplinarian.  Yet large groups of people need a to hear a message that resonates with both those performing and those not.  Leaders must celebrate wins with the team while sending a message that those underperforming know they are not hiding in the shadows.  Here, you are required to wear a delicate combination of hats to inspire the best from your team.  Only through thoughtful analysis and understanding of the current environment will you know which hat to wear.  The key is to think it through before you lead.

Of course, there are some hats that you can never take off: integrity, empathy, listening, and decision-making to name a few.  You must be comfortable enough in your own identity to stay true to your personal and core leadership values, while being able to adapt to any situation.  Your identity will remain the same, but using different hats in your workplace, community, and family allows you to maximize your influence using the breadth of your leadership abilities.  After all, damage can be done when you are wearing your sweaty, intense workout hat while you are trying to have a tea-party with your daughter. 

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