Many studies have shown that the more styles a leader shows, the better. Leaders who have grasped four or more—what are sometimes noted as being a kind of ceiling or roof that covers everything else: the authoritative, democratic, affiliative, and coaching styles—have the very best business performance. And the most effective leaders switch flexibly among the leadership styles as needed.
Although that may sound intimidating, it happens more often than we either think or notice, the latter probably because where it’s done well, the business simply runs, so we’re not even meant to notice. This applies at both large corporations and start-ups.
Such leaders don’t mechanically match their style to fit a checklist of situations—they are far more fluid. They are sensitive to the impact they have on others, and adjust their style to get the best results. These are leaders, for example, who can assess very quickly that a talented but underperforming employee has been demoralised by an unsympathetic, do-it-the-way-I-tell-you manager, and needs to be inspired by being reminded why their work matters. Or that leader might choose to ask the employee about their aspirations, and find ways to make their job more challenging. Or that initial conversation might signal that the employee needs an ultimatum: improve or leave.
For an example of fluid leadership in action, let’s consider “David”, the general manager of a major division at a global company. David is appointed to his job while the division is failing. It has not met any targets for several months. Morale among senior managers is awful; mistrust and resentment are widespread. David’s directive is clear: turn the division around.
We would imagine – it would make sense, given that David has been seen by the board as the best person – that he would do so by quickly moving between leadership styles. From the start, he realises he had a brief window to establish effective leadership, and rapport and trust. He also knows that he urgently needs to be informed about what is not working, so his first task is to listen to key people.
He therefore will meet key executive/senior management team members to get their understanding of the present situation. But his focus is not so much on learning how each person diagnoses the problem, but on getting to know each manager as a person.
He also looks for ways he can help the team members achieve what they want to in their careers. For instance, one manager who has been getting feedback that he was a poor team player reveals his worries. He thinks he is a good team member, but he’s upset by persistent complaints. Recognising that he is talented and a valuable asset, David makes an agreement with him to point out (in private) when his actions undermine his goal of being seen as a team player.
The key to all of this – and what makes it succeed or fail – is to have a goal that underpins all the rest: team building, so that everyone owns whatever solution for the business problems emerges.
A good “David” encourages everyone to express their frustrations and complaints, and to focus on solutions – both individually and as a group. As the group comes up with specific action plans, the leader secures commitment and buy-in.
The move then is to a more authoritative style, assigning accountability to each executive/senior manager and holding them responsible for delivery. It also requires constant expression of the group’s new vision in a way that reminds each member of how his or her role is crucial to reaching these goals.
The hoped for, and likely, results? Everything improves. People talk about the division’s vision, and their commitment to new, clear goals.
An leader who is naturally empathetic, builds rapports, and communicates effectively will easily develop rapport, showing a natural ease in forming new relationships, getting to know someone as a person, and cultivating a connection. And, they excel at interpersonal communication, particularly in saying the right thing at the right moment.
So, if any leader wants to be able to be more affiliative, they need to improve their level of empathy and, perhaps, their skills at building relationships or communicating efficiently. Whereas a leader who wants to be, or be seen as, more democratic, might need to work on collaboration and communication.
Like parenthood, leadership will never be an exact science. But neither should it be a complete mystery to those who practice it. Parents understand the psychological and behavioural components that affect their “job performance.” That is driven by online information, which in itself feeds organisations the message that they need to improve their own communication. This applies as much to the NHS or the GP as it does to Tesco.
Similarly, business or public sector leaders can get a clearer picture of what it takes to lead effectively. And perhaps as important, they can see how they can make that happen. Think of the so-called “bricks and mortar” retailer. They adapt and change because online retail makes them, but also because online feedback makes them; and similarly, Amazon operates the same way, but in reverse.
The business environment is continually changing, and a leader must respond in kind. Hourly, daily, weekly, executives must use the right style at the right time and in the right measure. The payoff is in the results.