The Ideal Leader

With the very notion of ‘ideal’ being subjective, is it even possible to define and therefore recognise and even teach others to become an ‘Ideal’ Leader?

As a leadership development professional, I work with individuals who strive to become better leaders. Everyone wants to know “What is the ideal profile?” “Which profile makes for the best leaders?” “Which profile types are considered to be most successful?”

Is it possible to answer such questions? The response of “none of them and all of them” is not going to satisfy the asker!

The key messages

After many years of running leadership programs, executive coaching and debriefing a vast range of psychometric instruments, I became aware I was repeating the same key messages over and over again to program participant cohorts.

The underlying key messages of all the psychometric instruments were essentially the same, regardless of the focus area of the instrument. Whether we were analyzing personality traits, leadership capabilities, change styles or interpersonal behavioural interaction needs, the messages were all that it is crucial to have the self-awareness to understand your own profile and how others differ, and the skill to respond appropriately and adjust your own style to best fit the current context.

Varying profiles

Every profile can be optimal in a certain situation or with certain individuals, and the same profile will be completely ineffective in a different context. Out of context equals ineffective.

Therefore, the message that I had been repeating with my program participants and coaching clients for years was:

The most effective and successful leader is both self-aware and skilled; they are capable of fluently adapting their approach to fit the current context, optimally utilising their skills in a challenging environment.


In psychometric assessments ‘types’ are often presented on a spectrum. The most familiar is often Introversion and Extroversion based on Jungian theory and made famous by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

More extroverted behaviour is often encouraged in the world of work, with employees being rewarded for speaking up, being assertive, and initiating connections with others. But of course it is possible to be too loud and visible and be perceived as pushy, aggressive, or arrogant.

Many talk about achieving a balance, thinking that the middle of the spectrum is more desirable, with the misconception that either extreme of the spectrum is too extreme and therefore undesirable.

But the opposite can also be true. Leaders need to be self-aware to recognise and utilise their greatest strengths, which may sit at the extreme of the spectrum (the extreme introvert who works autonomously and writes a mind-blowing book).

Moving on the spectrum

The skill is knowing where on the spectrum is most appropriate at any given time considering the audience and situation. The Workplace Big 5 instrument includes ‘Ambivert’ at the mid-point of the introvert/extrovert dichotomy – which I love as I profile as an Ambivert.

People can profile as an Ambivert two ways though, either as a true Ambivert who rates on the mid range for every facet of the scale, or as an averaged Ambivert like me who has some introvert tendencies and some extrovert tendencies and averages back to an Ambivert.

In reality there is no advantage to profiling as an Ambivert as it does not equate to balanced, in fact your behaviour is less consistent than those with strong preferences, so it is difficult for others to predict or know what to expect, and you may be less likely to stand out and be noticed.

Choosing the appropriate style

The real skill is knowing when your preferred style (whatever your preference) works best and when it is beneficial to adapt your style to be more effective. When you know how you are likely to react instinctively (in-preference) and you are mindful that you have a choice to respond appropriately (potentially out-of-preference) you are able to choose the most effective approach to any given situation.

Using the right skills

Self-awareness and mindfulness are only the first two steps however. To be optimally effective as a leader you will also need to have the right skills to utilise.

Emotional intelligence, Effective Communication, Managing Others, Change Management, Conflict Management and all of the rest of the leadership capabilities that you are likely to find listed in the index of any leadership psychometric, are all valuable skills.

Using FLOW to change

There is no one ideal profile of optimal leadership, however I do believe optimal leadership is achievable. To explore optimal leadership further I was drawn to researching agile leadership, positive psychology and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of FLOW.

And this is where FLOW becomes relevant to leadership.

Flow is a concept coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi whose contention is that you can change your state of consciousness entering a state of optimal experience called FLOW.

Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” stemmed from the pursuit of happiness and have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. You may recognise the experience of flow when you have been totally absorbed in what you are working on and don’t even notice the hours go by as you create your masterpiece.

To achieve a state of flow it is essential that the level of challenge is equal to the level of skill, as the challenge increases so must the skill set and confidence.

Flow Leadership Model

Applying the concept of flow to leadership I have developed the Flow Leadership Model, which contains four developmental levels representing four distinct stages. Each stage specifies the current state of the learner and the development required to progress to the next stage, in relation to movement along the Flow Spectrums. There are 18 Flow Spectrums with three categories relating to participants’ perceptions of Self, Others and World.

Flow leadership represents peak performance and is achieved when there is sufficient challenge to motivate the individual to perform and accurately select the optimal placement on each spectrum without increasing performance beyond the limits of capability of the individual, which could push them into a panic (fight, flight, freeze).

The self-aware and skilled leader can recognise when they are in danger of becoming overwhelmed and consciously choose to respond appropriately to the pressure situation rather than reverting to an instinctive reaction, effectively choosing ‘flow’ instead of ‘fight, flight or freeze’.

Flow Leadership is the ideal or ultimate state of effectiveness, influence and success in leadership. The experienced and self-aware leader who has developed the ability for unconscious and spontaneous movement between approaches and styles to best fit the current audience or context can attain Flow Leadership.

The Women who Lead program is underpinned by the Flow Leadership theory and ultimately develops women leaders’ confidence, by developing self-awareness, affirming existing skills and strengths and building upon these, embracing flexibility of approach, and consciously (eventually subconsciously) choosing the most effective approach best suited to the current context. As women are naturally multi-taskers we already have such a head-start at maintaining authenticity and a sense of purpose while maximizing a flexible approach.

The Women who Lead program is a collaboration between Flow Leadership and Style Confidante, designed and delivered by Katalin Howell, Director of Flow Leadership and Melissa Lewis Founder of Style Confidante.

To know more about how building your presence and personal brand join the Women who Lead program in October 4th & 5th, and 18th in Melbourne limited spots available.

First published on Business Woman Media

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