Each leadership style you hear about is celebrated for being responsible for your success as a leader. Transformational leadership seems to work in every part of the World; and empowering leadership seems to be a requirement to lead the new workforce of Millennials who are searching for meaningful work. However, contrary to what you may have heard, it is very unlikely that you will get enhanced results by single-mindedly following one of these leadership styles.
Let’s look at the available evidence and see what a leadership style is and whether you should or should not follow a leadership style. We will also talk about making productive changes in your approach to using different leadership styles to make you a more effective leader.
What are leadership styles?
Your leadership style is simply the behavior pattern you adopt when influencing others to accomplish shared goals. In other words, your leadership style is what you do when you are leading others. For example, let’s say that in your last team meeting you decided the work allocation for the upcoming week by yourself, without consulting your team members. In this case, you adopted an autocratic leadership style. However, if in your upcoming team meeting you involve others and consider their opinions in allocating and scheduling work, you will be adopting a participative leadership style.
Each pattern of behaviors you adopt (that is, each leadership style) can be the result of unconscious or conscious thinking. The first is largely automatic and guides you towards a leadership style that is habitual to you. You lead in the way that comes to mind. In contrast, conscious thinking guides you to objectively analyze the situation you are facing as a leader. Based on this analysis, you choose the leadership style that, in your assessment, best fits your situation.
Since we simply do not have time to objectively analyze all the situations we face as leaders, in most instances, we end up relying mainly on a leadership style that is usual to us. This means that most of us have a dominant (a go-to) leadership style. This can be because that style fits our personality, or simply because it served us well in the past and, as such, we decided to keep using it.
However, for leadership decisions with important outcomes, there are multiple reasons to be flexible and to adapt our leadership style to fit the situation. Let’s look at each reason, individually.
Reason 1: Leadership styles are not equally effective across the world
Let’s say that you are following a participative leadership style. You like to listen to the opinions of those around you and to find solutions with them for issues. This is great in the sense that it can empower and motivate your team, increase the quality of your decisions (after all, “two heads think better than one”), and make people more willing to accept decisions since they are, at least partially, responsible for making them.
But large scale studies show that this particular style is not equally welcomed across the world. For example, while people in Germanic and Northern Europe and in Anglo countries (UK and USA) tend to accept and welcome participative leaders, people from the Middle East and from South and Confucian Asia tend to dislike them.
In a classic study, researchers asked people from eight countries around the world about their expectations of leaders. The top five expectations people identified were different for each country. Even in European countries, in which we would expect some similarity, people’s expectations were quite dissimilar. For example, whereas in France the top expectation was for a leader to behave in a resolute way, in Germany people’s foremost expectation was to see signs of intelligence in leaders. In Latin American cultures you would be seen as enthusiastic (something valued in leaders there) if you use a strong voice with ups and downs. However, in most Asian cultures, you would be seen as someone deserving of respect and with great self-control (something valued in leaders there) if your speech was monotonous and monotonic.
In every country there are shared cultural values that define, to some meaningful degree, what people like and the leadership styles they prefer. So, if you are an effective participative leader in the UK and you are relocated temporarily to South Asia, it is possible that you will fail massively as a leader if you do not adapt your style. This is particularly important nowadays – for the first time in History almost all of us are working, on a daily basis, with people from many different countries, who hold many different cultural values.
A tool for you
The GLOBE project shares important insights on the leadership styles that work best in each country. You can also find insights on the culture of each country and even compare your culture with another one to learn the key differences. If you are going to lead a team or a company in a different country, take a moment to learn which leadership style is most effective there. Do not forget to do the same if you are going to lead people with cultural backgrounds you are not familiar with.
Be conscious of how much you adapt your leadership style based on the culture, though. Major adaptations can be problematic. For example, your supervisees might also adapt their behavior to your dominant style, or you may not fully understand the other culture and miss important nuances. Frequently, moderate adaptations work best. For example, if you are not familiar with the other culture, you can try identifying the key differences between the cultures and fine-tune your leadership style accordingly.
Reason 2: The effectiveness of your leadership style depends on the person you are leading
Each person has a unique image about what leadership entails. Let’s do an exercise together. Think about a chair and describe the image that popped up in your mind. While doing the same exercise I come up with the following description: four legs, dark brown mahogany wood, with pillows in the back and in the bottom, placed next to a dining table. Is this a perfect match with your description? I doubt. You might have thought about a metal chair or a working chair with only one central leg. The function is the same: to sit. The specific appearance might be drastically different.
The same thing happens with leadership. The function is to continuously influence others towards shared goals. The specific style to do it effectively might be drastically different. Some people see a leader as someone powerful who is in charge; others see them as facilitators who are warm and caring. Research shows that these leadership images depend not only on culture, but also on our profession and even on our personality and beliefs. What people expect from a leader in law is probably very different from what people expect from a leader in nursing. Similarly, if you have employees that are proactive, it is likely that their performance goes down when you show dominance in conversations and at work. Dominance can work well, however, if you have non-proactive employees.
Also, if you think about the people who work with you, maybe they are at different competence levels, regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is usually recommended that you adapt your leadership style to the competence level of your supervisees. For example, you may want to coach more inexperienced supervisees and delegate mainly to tenured ones.
As a leader you have to interact with multiple supervisees on a regular work day. If you target optimal performance at work, it is very likely that you will have to adopt different leadership styles throughout the day, depending on the person you are leading.
Reason 3: The effectiveness of your leadership style depends on the situation you face
The idea of following a usually appealing leadership style may appear attractive to most of us. For example, would you prefer to be remembered as a participative leader, who asks for others’ inputs, or as an autocratic one, who decides on your own? While most of us would probably answer “participative”, there are many situations in which this desirable leadership style can backfire.
For example, you may not have the time to ask for others’ inputs when you have to make a quick decision. If you arrive at the Hospital with a serious emergency, would you prefer the shift leader to ask other physicians to sit and have a conversation about the optimal route to follow, or to direct everyone towards an established route that could save you? I would go with the last one!
Also, if you overly request your team’s input, you may appear needy, insecure, or incompetent. A few years ago I was working for someone who was fundamentally a participative and empowering leader. During one of our many meetings, one of my colleagues turned to me rolling his eyes and silently asked “Are we now supposed to do his job?” This was a stressful job with demanding deadlines and performance thresholds, and the participative style of our leader was just an additional burden for us to deal with.
And let’s not forget that those around you may simply lack the knowledge to effectively participate in the decision making. Deciding on your own (if you have the information to make a high quality decision), or asking for input only from those with relevant expertise on the topic are ways to improve your effectiveness at work and of those around you. This is particularly important given that leaders spend, on average, more than half of their work time in meetings, and many of those meetings are unproductive.
The situations you face ultimately define how successful a leadership style will be. Consider this: Instead of asking yourself what type of leader you are, start asking yourself what type of situation you are facing. This does not mean that you should start using a leadership style you are not familiar with. Having a basic understanding of how to use a leadership style should always come first. It means, however, that you are moving your focus from yourself to your surroundings. This gives you the opportunity to start diagnosing the situation and identifying solutions that might work.
Just because a leadership style is appealing or likable it does not mean that it will work in all situations. For example, leaders who are both autocratic and participative, depending on the situation, tend to lead more effective teams . Although being a participative leader might be appealing, being both a participative and an autocratic leader might be more effective.
Reason 4: Each leadership style you adopt has a different function
There are multiple leadership styles available to you. Here’s a list of the most common ones.
- Autocratic leadership (you make the decisions at work without consulting others);
- Participative leadership (you listen to others and look for solutions to problems with them);
- Leadership focused on initiating structure at work (you explain the roles each person needs to adopt to finish something at work, you coordinate people’s actions, and you determine standards to be accomplished);
- Leadership focused on showing consideration towards others (you show that you respect and care about your supervisees, and you are approachable and friendly at work);
- Transformational/charismatic leadership (you are a role model for what you say, you give people values to follow and a positive vision for the future, you challenge your supervisees to solve problems in a better way, and you try to develop each person to their full potential);
- Ethical leadership (you are fair, do what is right, look both at the results and at the way they were achieved, and reward ethical behavior from your employees);
- Servant leadership (you serve your supervisees, put their interests before yours, promote their growth and their well-being, and look for sustainable performance over time);
- Empowering leadership (you share your power with your supervisees, and create a supportive environment where you share information, ask for input, and coach others around you when required);
- Leader-member exchange (you work on having relationships of high quality with your supervisees).
The list of leadership styles is extensive and, for those who are trying to improve their leadership effectiveness, confusing (not to say frustrating). However, a closer look tells you that each leadership style tends to fulfill a unique function and to focus on a particular outcome.
To be more effective as a leader, it helps when you start by organizing the leadership styles available to you. For example, despite the extensive list of leadership styles available out there, you can organize them into four simple types: 1. Decision-making styles; 2. Styles focused on your everyday actions; 3. Styles that fall outside of your everyday’s responsibilities but that are important; 4. Styles focused on a particular facet of your effectiveness as a leader.
Decision-making styles look at when, and to what extent, you should involve your supervisees in generating and choosing alternatives to solve problems at work. The focus here is not on the decision that is made, but rather on how you got to the decision. For example, did you decide by yourself (autocratic leadership) or did you involve others (participative leadership)? We already talked about how important it is to rely on multiple decision-making styles in the previous point.
Styles focused on your everyday actions
Think about your everyday actions as a leader and list your daily duties. You will probably find that the majority of your everyday leadership actions fall into a more human/interpersonal side or into the “job to be done” side. This was also the conclusion researchers at the Ohio State University reached in the 1940s. After listing all the behaviors leaders have to engage in on a daily basis, they found that almost all behaviors fall into either the consideration (focus on showing concern and respect for employees) or the initiating structure style (focus on goal attainment). Large scale studies indicate that both styles are important for your, and for your team’s, day-to-day effectiveness.
Styles that fall outside your everyday’s responsibilities but that are important
Assigning tasks and maintaining performance standards (initiating structure style) paired with active listening and showing concern and respect for your supervisees (consideration style), is usually tied to effectiveness. Still, when you adopt leadership styles that fall outside your regular duties, you tend to go farther on multiple facets of effectiveness.
For example, imagine that, on top of structuring work, you also share an exciting vision for the future and assist your supervisees to gain new perspectives on problems. In this case, you would be following both an initiating structure style and a transformational leadership style. Also, imagine that, on top of being respectful to your supervisees, you also work on developing high-quality relationships with them. In such case, you would be engaging in both a consideration style and a leader-member exchange style.
When your everyday leadership is complemented by key styles that fall outside your day-to-day responsibilities, you end up with a boost on multiple facets of effectiveness. Multiple studies  indicate that, in doing so, you are enhancing your likelihood of having satisfied and committed supervisees, being a more effective leader, and boosting your supervisees’ performance and innovation output.
Styles focused on a particular facet of your effectiveness as a leader
Although most leadership styles aim at performance improvement, nowadays you must also consider other outcomes. For example, the new workforce of Millennials is looking for meaning at work. Empowering leadership appears to be a strong facilitator of employees’ psychological empowerment, which includes having meaning at work. Also, whether results are achieved in an ethical manner is, rightfully, a key concern nowadays. Ethical leadership appears to be particularly effective at reducing unethical behaviors. As another example, servant leadership appears to be mainly relevant for increasing your employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and their commitment to your company.
Leadership styles complement each other
By following a single leadership style you put yourself in danger of not fulfilling all your leadership functions or of not achieving your full potential. By disregarding a leadership style that is important for your work but not a requirement, you may end up not achieving the level of output that is at your reach.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that your life at work is not an exact science. For example, although each leadership style has a main function and is particularly effective for specific outcomes, each leadership style has some relevance for multiple outcomes. Take the case of ethical leadership. While it is particularly relevant to curb unethical behavior, it also helps a bit in enhancing team performance.
Reason 5: Life and work are dynamic, not static
Until now, we have seen that following a single leadership style can be risky because each culture, profession and person may welcome different leadership styles and develop a unique image of what leadership is. Also, following the same leadership style over and over can backfire because there are situations in which a given behavior is simply inappropriate and ineffective, and because each leadership style has a function to fulfill.
But what if we simplify things? For example, is there really any drawback in following a leadership style if, for example, you are leading people you know well, from the same culture and profession, and that share the same perceptions of leadership?
Even in these unlikely conditions following a single leadership style should be risky. Why? Because you would be assuming that things around you would remain static. But rare things in life and at work are static; almost all things are dynamic. They change with time.
Teams are dynamic
Think about the last team project you leaded. Have your team engaged in the same things throughout the entire project? To answer this question, reflect for a moment on your concerns as a leader throughout the project. In the beginning you were probably concerned with whether everyone understood what the project was all about and if they had the resources to finish it. You might also have thought about a plan to tackle the project and the specific milestones to achieve. After that early stage, you might have focused your attention into guaranteeing that everything was running smoothly. At that time, the following things were probably at the top of your mind: “is the project on track?”, “is the information flowing openly?”, “are we missing a resource that will make us waste a lot of time?”, “are we motivated to achieve this?” and “are people clashing with each other?”
What this exercise tells you is that successful leaders know that their teams are dynamic and have different needs depending on what they are dealing with or working on. For example, in the beginning of a project, developing a clear vision and a plan is critical. But later, when your team is already actively working on the project, creating an environment where everyone is helping each other is paramount. This means that being a visionary leader might be useful in the beginning of a project; and being a supportive leader may be important at later stages. Can you imagine having a leader systematically bugging you with a vision or asking you to participate on the improvement of your team’s vision? Unfortunately, these out-of-place behaviors are rather common and ineffective.
Your career is dynamic
Likewise, your career also changes. You may be promoted to a higher level position, start your own business, or simply move horizontally to a different department. Leadership styles that were strengths in your previous position can easily become weaknesses in your new position because the requisites of the function have changed. For this reason, most of the leaders who fail in their new positions are those who are not able to change their dominant leadership style.
For example, while an autocratic style can work well for a supervisor position, being able to adopt a more participative style is important for being successful in a director or senior executive position. One of the reasons is that the participative style gives you access to information that is critical for your functions as a manager/senior executive (for example, coming up with a strategic plan). An autocratic style would put you in danger of missing those pieces of critical information. In contrast, while these pieces of information might be important they are unlikely to be critical for the functions of a supervisor. Most supervisors are supposed to direct other people and to ensure things are running smoothly and efficiently. A dominant autocratic style, where you give clear directions to people, can work quite well for many people (particularly when it is balanced with other styles).
A tool for you
When you find yourself struggling with seeing things as dynamic, ask yourself the following question: Are the needs of a 3 year old baby the same as those of a 30 year old young adult? Your answer will probably be: “Of course not!” This dissonance opens up your mind to look at alternative routes as a leader, depending on your team or your own needs.
Reason 6: Leadership adaptability is not leadership inconsistency
There is a clear difference between being an inconsistent leader and a flexible and adaptable one.
When you adopt different leadership styles, under the exact same circumstances, you show that you are an inconsistent leader. Most people with whom you work expect some level of consistency from you. By showing signals of inconsistency in your leadership style you tell others that you are not trustworthy and fair. After all, why did your leadership style change from one day to the other under the exact same circumstances? As a consequence, your team’s effectiveness tends to fall.
In contrast, when you adopt different leadership styles, depending on the situation you are in, you show that you are a flexible and adaptable leader. This flexibility and adaptability shows that you are capable of dealing with the multiple challenges that you and your team will face. As a consequence, your team’s effectiveness tends to get boosted.
Returning to the opening question (“Should you follow a leadership style?”), the evidence we reviewed indicates that having a dominant leadership style is not the problem per se. We all have to be effective at work, and relying on our habitual leadership style/s is likely to work in most situations. The problem is not having developed a large repertoire of styles to effectively switch between them, when it is required.
Take the case of Sergio Marchionne, the former CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles who was responsible for turning both Fiat and Chrysler profitable again. If you scan the information available online on his leadership, you find that although he followed a dominant style, he easily switched between styles. He is well known for being tough and autocratic (having the last word on a decision). However, he also showed signs of participative and empowering leadership (requesting others’ inputs in situations where he did not have all the information to make a quality decision), charismatic leadership (being courageous in difficult times, and expecting the best from himself and from those who worked with him), just to mention a few.
Developing a large repertoire of leadership styles is more easily said than done, as there are many roadblocks when you try to do so. For example, our personality defines, to certain extent, how comfortable we are with a given leadership style. While conscientious people (dependable, dutiful, and achievement-oriented) tend to adopt more an initiating structure leadership style, extroverted people tend to feel more comfortable with a transformational or with a consideration leadership style.
In addition, some people may have the belief that by learning a new leadership style, they are changing who they are and their identity. However, learning how to use different leadership styles is quite different from changing who we are. By learning a new leadership style, you are putting a new tool in your leadership toolbox that can serve you well in the future. You remain the same person – just one with a more complete leadership toolbox.
Even when our personality is not aligned with a leadership style, we have amplitude to master that particular style. Only part of our personality is fixed. The other part is mutable (it is called free traits) – we can activate traits that are strange to us when they are required for an important project. For example, if you are introverted, you may act as extroverted if it is important to engage in a leadership style that asks for it. Again, you are not changing yourself; you are simply becoming more efficient.
With that being said, let’s see what you can do to master and appropriately use multiple leadership styles.
The first step is to learn to diagnose the situation
Start using the tools we shared with you and asking yourself “What leadership style would be more effective for this project, at this moment?” It is also beneficial to make a list of your supervisees and reflect on which leadership style appears to work best with whom. Many tell us that, by doing this exercise, they notice that their supervisees give them multiple clues about what works and what does not. Keep an eye out for those clues.
To improve your diagnose skills let’s do an exercise together. Please recall a situation where although you sensed you could have adopted a different leadership style, you had no idea which one or even if you were judging the situation properly. If you don’t mind sharing, please report it bellow (make sure you do not identify any person). If you already had the opportunity to figure out a potentially effective solution, please share your insights. As part of the exercise, also check others’ reports. That way, we will be learning from each other and even figuring out things that were completely out of our radar.
The second step is learning how to use different leadership styles
You have multiple tools at your disposal. You can experiment based on what you read. You can look around and replicate what peers, who adopt that particular style, are doing. Good training programs and executive coaching can also work quite well, if you have the budget.
Keep in mind that, in the beginning, it can be frustrating. For example, because the new style you are using is not fine-tuned, your supervisees can see you as showing signs of inconsistency rather than adaptability. And this is something you want to minimize as much as possible. The key is to act, assess the results of your actions, and make the necessary adjustments. If you follow multiple iterations of this “act, assess, adjust” process, you will master the new leadership style in no time.
The third and last step is to look for or create substitutes for some leadership styles
Mastering multiple leadership styles can be personally demanding and time consuming. Some of us might choose not to do it, or simply not have the resources at a given moment to pursue it. Also, it is unrealistic and naïve to think that a person can master all leadership styles necessary for all situations.
A more balanced approach is to look for things that can replace your leadership style. For example, if you hire highly competent supervisees, you reduce the need for a style focused on organizing work, such as the initiating structure style. Similarly, if you have intrinsically motivated supervisees, you can reduce your levels of transformational leadership, since they are already motivated to do a great work. Overall, when you find a replacer for leadership you have the opportunity of withdrawing a leadership style, without effectiveness costs.
In some instances, exercising your formal leadership when there are effective substitutes can even lead to resentment from your supervisees. They can be unable to see the benefit of your leadership or even think that you do not believe enough in their capabilities. For example, if your supervisees have an internal locus of control (are in control of their outcomes), adopting a supportive leadership style can be more detrimental than beneficial, because it gets on the way of what they are doing.
Following a single leadership style can be risky because each culture, profession, and person welcomes different leadership styles. Also, since almost all things at work are dynamic (not static) and each leadership style has a specific function; a single leadership style simply does not apply to every situation you face.
Successful leaders can evaluate the situation, assess which style will be more effective and switch between styles in a consistent manner. This adaptability will likely leave you with enhanced results. To reduce the burden of systematically changing styles, you can also proactively create or pay attention to the existing leadership substitutes.
Keep in mind that each leadership style you hear about should be celebrated for its part in enhancing your success as a leader, not to define you as a leader.
As always, thank you for trusting your time with Managing Life at Work. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post (do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter and/or to bookmark us). Until then, keep improving your use of multiple leadership styles.
References and further reading
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