Adapting your leadership style to the situation

August 4, 2017

Leadership Style

In a recent article, I talked about certain similarities between teamworking in a business environment and the success or failure of sporting teams. Another parallel to be drawn is that teams are made up of many different types of characters, all with their own unique styles. In both business and sport, the leadership style and character of individuals can play a critical role, particularly when it comes to those in a leadership position.

For example, England cricketer Kevin Pietersen was perhaps the most divisive character the sport had ever seen. His talent and flair went beyond anything that had come before, and he seemed destined to be one of the most successful batsmen ever. Yet that very flair proved to be his undoing, particularly when he was given the role of team captain. When there was a need to knuckle down and play defensively, he would fail to adapt, take an unnecessary risk and lose his wicket. Worse, he always seemed unrepentant, saying that was the way he played, that it led to success more often than failure and that he was not going to change. This, along with other factors relating to personality rather than ability, contributed to his career ending when his talents were still at their height.

There are any number of leadership types in business. But while it is one thing to categorise your leadership style, the more pertinent question is whether you can change it to suit different business situations.

Styles of leadership

Consult half a dozen business management texts and you will be faced with half a dozen interpretations of the different types of leader. One that fits well with modern organisations is from Daniel Goleman’s Harvard Business Review bestseller, entitled Leadership that Gets Results. He describes six types, which are as follows:

  • Pacesetter – leads by example, and gets great results if the team is skilled and motivated. But can stifle innovation.
  • Authoritative – focuses on the end goals, while leaving the team members to decide how to get there. Inspires a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, but does not work well when dealing with a team of experts who already know their fields well.
  • Affiliative – puts people first, and focuses on bonding and creating a close team. A good style to adopt in times of trouble, but not necessarily a great long-term strategy, as performance can drop.
  • Coaching – has both eyes fixed firmly on the future, and in developing the next generation of leaders, thinkers and experts. Less effective when team members are unwilling to learn or adapt.
  • Coercive – the old fashioned “bossy boss,” who gives instructions and expects immediate compliance. A useful style in times of emergency, but otherwise to be avoided, as it causes ill feeling and stunts innovation and flexibility.
  • Democratic – focuses on consensus and inclusivity. Useful when team members need to get involved in a joint project, and a great way of generating ideas. But consensus can take time, so less effective in an emergency situation.

Adapting your style

As a manager, you are probably inclined to glance down that list and spot which one is you. That’s fair enough, but one of the points that was quick to emerge from Goleman’s book is that there is no silver bullet, no universal panacea that is the perfect style of leadership. As we mentioned earlier, you could consult another text and see six, or ten or twenty other definitions — and each would have its pros and cons.

The most successful leaders recognise this, and adapt their leadership style accordingly. Of course, it is not as simple as saying: “Ah, the company is about to go through a takeover, I had better start adopting a coercive leadership style.”

There are four stages to consider:

1) Identify the need

A need to adapt your leadership style is likely to come about as a result of changing circumstances. It is important to identify the need, but it is also imperative that you do not react too fast. Change is tricky, and you need to take time to see how things are going to pan out. Poor Donald Rumsfeld was broadly ridiculed for his now famous known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns speech, but the underlying point he was making was actually a valid one: none of us know everything, so watch and learn.

2) Adapt your mindset

By following the advice in 1), you have acquired the mental space necessary to alter your mindset in alignment with the evolving circumstances. Put aside your preconceived ideas, and be ready for the new dynamic. It’s easier said than done.

3) Choose the most appropriate style

Again, this sounds easy, but in practice it is possibly the toughest step. There are plenty of questions to consider:

  • What does “right” mean?
  • Right for whom?
  • Does my vision of right tally with that of others?
  • What will this style achieve?
  • Are these objectives aligned with the process of change that is happening?
  • Whom will this affect most? Is that what I intended?

4) Implementation 

Once you have decided on the appropriate management style, it is simply a case of adopting it. Perhaps not as easy to do as it is to say — just ask Kevin Pietersen — but this is where expert assistance can be particularly valuable. With a little practice, you can effectively build up a whole toolkit of management styles for different situations.

Changing methods in changing times

The days of the authoritarian leader sitting apart from the rest in a mahogany lined office might be in the past, but that does not mean that today’s leaders are only interested in group hugs, consensus-based management and after work five-a-side tournaments, either.

Modern businesses operate in a complex world, and rely on team members who all have different needs, opinions and personality traits of their own. This broad cacophony of what Donald Rumsfeld would call known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns means that today’s managers need to recognise changing dynamics and adapt their style of leadership accordingly.

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