What’s the Best Leadership Style

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Leaders often ask what sort of leadership style is appropriate. Authoritarian or relaxed? Different style for different people or always treat everyone the same?

Years ago, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard published their Situational Leadership model, suggesting a leader should adopt a style that is appropriate to a follower’s ability and willingness to do a task. Seems simple enough, but what does that mean for the leader.

In order to effectively apply Situational Leadership, the leader must make a real effort to understand the people on the team. To adapt style to situation, its first necessary to understand the situation. While at first blush it seems pretty simple – is the team member able to do the task and is he willing to do the task, remember we’re dealing with people. People are not usually simple. Perhaps Jane appears unwilling to do the task. You should take a more directive approach, right? Maybe. Truth is, Jane is embarrassed to admit she doesn’t have the skills necessary to do the task. A directive approach would actually complicate the situation and make her seem more unwilling, though that was never the case.

Or perhaps, Jane feels that what you want her to do is the wrong approach. She actually has a better idea but your directive approach has stifled her creative thinking.

So you shouldn’t be directive, right? Probably not with Jane but there may be a time for that approach. The toxic team member who has not responded to any other attempt is a good example.

Wow! This is just too complicated. Why can’t I just tell people what to do and fire them if they don’t do it? You can. Of course your team will experience low engagement and most likely high turnover. But if you’re willing to accept that, then maybe that’s the easy way for you.

I learned about the Situational Leadership model early in my military career. It made a lot of sense and I could see it in action in some of the leaders I worked for. Those leaders made an effort to understand the individuals on their team. They made it a point to know strengths and weaknesses and adapt their style as appropriate. At the same time I saw other, less enlightened leaders who adopted a one-size-fits-all style. Their teams seemed to have lower engagement and less productivity.

By observing the good leaders I’ve known through the years, I’ve found the best way to determine the most appropriate leadership style is through a two pronged approach.

  1. Make sure everyone knows the mission and goals of the team. Just as important is to ensure they know that you know their important contribution to the mission and goals.
  2. Learn each member’s abilities. Not just their acknowledged skills, but their ability to learn and grow. It’s important to know what level of challenge each member can accept.
  3. Be clear about your own strengths and weaknesses. Clearly define your values and what you expect from your team. Leaders who openly present their own philosophy to the team will find the team more willing to do necessary tasks and take on new challenges.

There is no best leadership style. Your leadership approach should be tailored to the people and situation. Neither are always the same and good leaders adapt to what they find.

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