When it comes to leadership, are you a thermostat or a thermometer?
My good friend, former colleague and mentor described me years ago as a “thermostat leader.” Since then, I have read many articles to gain a better understanding of just what that means as well as to understand the nuances between being a thermometer or thermostat leader.
A thermometer reflects the temperature of the environment. It simply reacts to what is happening around it. If the temperature is hot, it tells you so. If it’s cold, the thermometer reflects that reality as well. It really has one purpose and one purpose only.
A thermostat, on the other hand, regulates the environment. It sets the desired temperature of the room and actively works to maintain it within a given range. If the temperature rises above the goal, the thermostat signals the air conditioner to cool the room down. If the temperature falls below the goal, the thermostat triggers the heater to warm the room up. The thermostat is intelligent in the sense it is always monitoring the environment, and if the temperature gets too hot or cold, it decides what to do to correct the situation.
Now onto the differences when it comes to leadership styles.
Thermometer leaders react to their surroundings. When the tension gets high and people are on edge, these leaders are often seen losing their cool. They become irritable, harsh, demanding, critical, impatient and maybe even lose their temper and yell or curse. Thermometer leadership does not inspire trust and commitment with people – it erodes it.
Thermostat leaders, however, constantly have a pulse on the morale, productivity, stress level and environmental conditions of their team. When the temperature gets hot because the team is under pressure of a heavy workload, resources are scarce or pending deadlines are causing stress, they cool things off by acting as the calming influence. They take time to listen to the concerns of their team members and provide the necessary direction and support that is needed to help the team achieve its goals. Thermostat leaders also alleviate pressure on their team by mixing in some lighthearted fun at opportune times.
Likewise, when work is slow and people are prone to just go through the motions, thermostat leaders get their teams refocused on the vision, purpose and goals of the team. Because they are actively monitoring the environment of their teams, they know when the team needs to be challenged with new goals and priorities or when they just need a friendly kick in the pants to stay focused on their current initiatives.
Thermostat leaders build trust and confidence with their followers, whereas thermometer leaders erode trust. When times get unsettling, people want to see their leaders react with calm, focused and determined leadership. They want them to set the tone for how the team should react during tough times and navigate the rough seas ahead. That is a tough challenge for leaders because they are team members themselves and are subject to the same, and often times more and different, stressors as those experienced by the team.
So, are you a thermometer or thermostat leader?