How many Leadership Styles do you have?

Leadership is all about behaviour. It is what you do that counts not what you say because people remember how you made them feel rather than what you said. This is one of the reasons that it is so challenging because, you need to have the flexibility to change your behaviour depending upon the context and the situation.

There is never a ‘one size fits all’ approach to leading people. You need different styles and leadership approaches so that you can deal with different situations.

‘If all you have is a hammer, all you see are nails’
Let me bring this to life with an example.

Imagine you are driving down a country road on a cold, wet winter’s night. As you come round a bend, you are faced with a scene of absolute carnage. Two cars have had a head on collision. As you slow down, the first thing you hear are the screams of the injured. There is blood, broken glass and twisted metal everywhere. Some people are unconscious, some people are shouting. Cars are starting to build up on both sides of the road as people slow down…

What do you do?

The situation is out of control. People need first aid now. The emergency services need to be called. The traffic need to be managed. The situation requires leadership.

How would you deal with it?

I am going to refer back to this situation later on but first I want to explain the six styles of leadership that Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee identified in their book ‘The New Leader’.

These six styles neatly define the approaches that you could take in any given situation.

The key is to understand your natural approach – the one you naturally defer to – and then develop your understanding of the others so that you can apply them to different situations.

The Democratic Style

Most likely to say: ‘What do you think?’

This approach values the input from other people. When operating using this style, a leader is likely to ask ‘what do you think?’ They value the opinion of the people around them and use it to inform their plans.

This can be a very valuable approach when you need the support of lots of people to achieve something. If you’re going through a large scale organisational transformation, there has to be a period where the leadership asks the advice of the people in the organisation. If they don’t, they will find it hard to generate the commitment from the people who actually have to deliver the transformation.

This approach makes people feel like they are part of the planning process. When they feel like this, they tend to engage and take ownership of the plan as if they’d developed it themselves.

When I was in the Corps, I frequently looked to my Corporals and Sergeants for good ideas which helped to inform my plans. I wasn’t looking to defer responsibility but there is no correlation between seniority and solutions to problems. The people on the coal face see the world differently – often they know exactly what needs to be done, you just need to listen to them.

When this style of leadership is overused, it can lead to lots of talk but little execution. The pace of action can become very slow if the democratic style is used to defer decisions as leaders continue to seek more input from team members.

The Coaching Style

Most likely to say: ‘What if you could?’

The coaching style of leadership encourages people to think for themselves. Through the use of effective questioning, active listening, feedback and goal-setting, the leader develops their people to think for themselves. The long-term impact of this approach is extremely positive because it empowers people to take responsibility for outcomes.

David Marquet hints at this style of leadership in his book ‘Turn the Ship Around’. Although he doesn’t state it explicitly as ‘the coaching style’, it is very similar. This is how leaders in the military develop their people.

A Royal Marine on the front-line holds the authority to open fire. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this but the point I am making is that the individual has to be able to make the decision.

That might be an 18-year old young man or woman on their first deployment. It is incumbent on their leadership to prepare them to make that decision. We do this through scenario based judgement training. Practising and rehearsing judgement over and over again so that when they have to, the individual can make that decision in a split second and get it right.

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The Affiliative Style

Most likely to say: ‘People come first’

The affiliative leadership style focusses on the needs of people. They will value the relationships with their team members and be focussed on their needs. When leaders use this style, they tend to be popular.

However, if leaders overuse it, they might find it difficult to hold people to account. Poor performance can go unchecked. The key with this style is to understand the difference between being friendly and being friends. If you are friends with your people, you might find it very hard to hold people to account when they fail to perform.

It is okay to be friendly but keeping a little bit of distance between you and the team can be helpful in case you need to hold them to account or have a difficult conversation about poor performance.

The Visionary Style

Most likely to say: ‘Come with me’

This approach relies on the setting a compelling vision for the future. These leaders tell us what the world is going to look like if we follow them. JFK, Elon Musk and Martin Luther King are good examples of people who state what the future will look like. They then communicate the vision with absolute clarity. Kennedy wanted to put a man on the moon, Elon wants to go to Mars and MLK had a dream. They all inspired people to act and follow them.

This approach is naturally empowering as it engages people with the heart leaving them to work out the ‘how’ for themselves.

The Directive Style

Most likely to say: ‘Do what I say’

In the military, this is known as command. It is useful when you need ‘unquestioned rapid action’ in order to make something happen quickly.

The problem comes when this style is overused. Even in Afghanistan, fighting everyday, I used this style of leadership in limited amounts. The approach is a bit like a drop of adrenaline or caffeine. When used sparingly, it can be highly effective.

The problem comes when people overuse this style. In many organisations, this is the favoured style of leadership because it does get results quickly. But it comes at a cost as after a while people stop thinking for themselves and wait to be told what to do.

Why plan anything if you’re going to be told what to do when the Boss comes to work? Why bother using your initiative if it is not valued? 

The Pacesetting Style

Most likely to say: ‘Do what I do, quickly!’

The pacesetting style of leadership is an extreme version of leadership by example. Again, in some circumstances, it can be very useful.

In a military training environment, this is the style that is used. The leader sets high standards and holds their trainees to account for achieving them.

If overused, or used in the wrong context though, people quickly tire of this approach as it becomes hard to maintain those high standards all the time. The leader will run the risk of being marginalised as the team get used to this style.

Those are the six styles of leadership that a leader can employ in any given situation.

Back to the car crash.

The key point about this situation is the lack of time. Resources need to be coordinated quickly to save lives.

There isn’t time to talk. This situation requires immediate action and calls for the directive style. Any other style will waste too much time – which the injured people don’t have.

In this situation, a leader might say things like.

‘You, call the emergency services. We need the Police to coordinate the traffic, we need ambulances to treat the injured and we may need the fire department to cut people out of cars – call them now.’
‘You and you, turn your cars around, put your hazards on and move them round the bend so any oncoming traffic slows down’.
‘Does anyone have any first aid training? Ok, good.’
‘We will deal with the unconscious people first. If you are not doing anything, talk to an injured person and try and keep them calm’.

This is an example of the directive style of leadership in action. The leader is gripping the situation, taking control and coordinating the resources. These types of situation create leadership vacuums which someone needs to fill.

In a strange way, people will find this comforting because they are being given simple and clear instructions. They are able to be useful without having to worry about making decisions.

My natural style is to be affiliative.

I am people orientated and value relationships. I have to guard myself against getting too close to my team members maintaining a little distance in case I need to manage poor performance. I only know that because I’ve made mistakes and learnt from it.

The directive style is not my natural approach but it was one I developed through my military service. It was a tool I was taught to use.

So in 2011, when I came across a crash similar (although less dramatic) to the one above, I was able to use it to grip the situation and make sure people got the first aid they needed.

Leadership is about behaviour. But the ‘right’ behaviour is dictated by the situation.

Understand these six leadership styles. Understand your preferential one. Learn to read the context or the situation. Apply the right approach.

If you’ve got this far into the article, you’re already on the right course!

I sincerely wish you the best of luck. 



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