Developing your personal leadership style doesn’t need to wait until you hit the C-suite. Wherever you are in your career, you can cultivate the essential habit of self-awareness. The process of finding a style will look different for everyone, but here are a few key steps you can take to make sure you're developing an approach that is true to you.

Tips for Developing Your Leadership Style

1. Imitation Is the Enemy

Before you move into your first management position, you may have assumptions of what a leader should look, sound, and act like. Not every great leader has the style of Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg. In fact, no two leadership methods are the same.

Here’s the thing: When you do step into that managerial ring—and even before—the work of leadership requires flexing different qualities depending on the context and situation. When you notice you’re starting to imitate the style of your idol, throw that archetype out the window. The work of developing your own style doesn’t start outside the self, it starts from within.

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2. Know Your Strengths (and Weaknesses)

Think about the qualities that come naturally to you. Then ask yourself: Where do you struggle? Maybe you are a fast learner and great at getting things done, but sometimes sacrifice quality for quantity. Or, you could be confident in the work you create on your own, but when you get into the conference room, you struggle to speak up about your contributions.

The habits you make as an individual contributor may be your default when you first step into a leadership position. But becoming a great manager means working on yourself so that you can support and develop others, and that requires a different kind of work. Getting honest with yourself and your qualities is an essential step.

Related: Why Emotional Intelligence Is Important in Leadership

3. Understand the Influence of Bias

This is a big one. Developing your leadership style means understanding that certain aspects of your approach may cause others to interpret your behavior through the distortion of subconscious biases. This can be affected by factors such as gender, race, and nationality.

Mia Mends, CEO at Inspirus & Sodexo, Benefits and Rewards Services, USA and a featured protagonist in Leadership Principles, prides herself on her warmth and openness. Mends says she struggled with feedback about her leadership style being perceived as intimidating by some of her employees.

“I think women who are smart, and women of color who are smart, are perceived to be intimidating,” Mends says. “That’s unfortunate, because I think that if I were a white male, I’d just be smart.”

This reality is supported by research: Women who demonstrate high competence can often be perceived as less approachable. Similarly, female leaders who shine with warmth and approachability may be seen as less competent, and this struggle is unique to the workplace.

However you identify, these sticky biases lead to the question: What’s a bold, warm leader left to do when she aspires to lead her team authentically?

Leadership Principles: Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

4. Be Brave

Just as the research reads clearly on the reality of bias, it also shows that subconscious attitudes can be counteracted when others are exposed firsthand to performance track records. You can work to be more aware of how others’ impressions of you may differ from what you think you are communicating. Similarly, acknowledge your own potential biases or perceptions and how they may be affecting your judgment of others.

This self-awareness and honest reflection is the work of a confident leader, and confidence is one thing every leadership style should possess.

In the book, The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain the importance of authentic leadership.

“Confidence isn’t about pretending, or putting on an act; it springs from genuine accomplishment and work,” Kay and Shipman write.

This advice applies to anyone looking to develop their personal leadership style. Stop pretending and take action.

Kay and Shipman recommend taking bravery one step at a time—doing a small, brave thing until the next one is easier. Eventually, they suggest, confidence will flow. In those brave moments, your strengths will shine, and your weaknesses will be developed, and you’ll find the qualities that make you a leader are more obvious than you think.

Related: 6 Characteristics of an Effective Leader

Cultivating Your Leadership Approach

Developing your personal brand as a leader will be a journey you follow throughout your career. Know that stepping into a management role doesn’t mean losing your authenticity, but it can mean a different kind of required work. By taking time for self-reflection, understanding the influence of biases, and seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your bravery, you can develop a leadership style that is all your own.

Do you want to enhance your leadership skills? Download our free leadership e-book and explore our online course Leadership Principles to discover how you can become a more effective leader and unleash the potential in yourself and others.

Emily Ostermeyer

About the Author

Emily Ostermeyer is a Content Developer at Harvard Business School Online, currently assisting with the Leadership Principles course. Before joining the Course Delivery Team, Emily worked in education, earning a Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When she’s not working on course development, Emily enjoys reading, connecting with the greater Boston community, and of course, taking her dog Finn to the dog park.