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What is Your Ombudship Style?

There are arguably as many styles of ombudship as there are ombuds. What might be gained by identifying your own individual style and considering others? Guest writer Dr. Mary Bliss Conger weighs in with an idea from classic leadership theory.

Leadership That Gets Results” is a well-known article by psychologist Daniel Goleman that identifies six different styles of leadership and argues that effective leaders are those who learn to flexibly deploy them all. Published 20 years ago, the piece is still commonly referenced in popular writings on business management.

Its central analogy is that of golf: Leaders’ different styles are like golfers’ different clubs. The most successful golfers possess both a variety of club types and the wisdom to know how to wield them as conditions require. 

For most of history, leadership was assumed to be One Thing–decisive, often abrasive men getting others to fight their battles or do their bidding. It wasn’t until leadership had been closely studied in the context of modern organizations for decades that the notion of different styles emerged. And even then, the driving question was which style of leadership is best? Goleman’s analysis, however, helped us see that there isn’t a single best style; the leaders who get results are those who utilize many different styles in order to lead responsively.

I have long been interested in the relationship between leadership and ombudship. Yet it only recently occurred to me to look at ombuds through Goleman’s classic framework. It highlights many parallels between the roles:

Like senior leaders, ombuds constantly have to be responsive to changing circumstances. They never know who the next visitor is going to be, what new issues may present. Like senior leaders, ombuds deal with matters that, for one reason or another, protocol has been insufficient to resolve. Like senior leaders, ombuds are often acting alone, with little oversight or peer support, figuring out a healthy way forward in real-time. Such conditions call for flexible, varied approaches and the discernment to assess how and when to use them. 

At this point in history, data on ombudship remains sparse. We don’t have a century or so of well-funded research to guide the development of our working theories. Even so, I think ombuds should co-opt Goleman’s concept of different styles and try to reverse engineer it a bit. Here’s why:

  • First, it helps us acknowledge that legitimate variations in ombudship style are possible.
  • Second, it lets us leapfrog the empty (and often combative) question of Which ombudship style is best?
  • Third, it allows us to see past the level of tools (this tactic from coaching, that from mediation) and into the realm of entirely different approaches to our work.
  • Finally, it gives us permission and encouragement to adopt and perfect new styles in pursuit of effective ombudship.

Just like leaders, most ombuds will have primary or preferred styles–the ones that come quite naturally to us or that derive from our specific disciplinary training–and that’s a-ok. Simply trying to describe that one style of practice is likely to enhance our understanding of it.

I’m curious, though: What might we gain as a collective if we could name a handful of common ombudship styles and articulate when they are or are not most helpful? What might we see that we’ve missed before? How might it shape our attitudes toward professional development? How might it change the way we value each other and create belonging in our field?

If you’re curious too, a good first step may be trying to describe an ombudship style in the comments below. It might be your own, one you’ve seen a colleague practice, or one that you have read about.