Adapting Your Leadership Style

Leadership is very much situational. One capability that excellent leaders possess is the ability to adapt their leadership style to fit the situation. Those who apply the same style no matter the situation will not be as effective and successful.

In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman along with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, identify six leadership styles. In this article I will take their six styles and talk about specific situations where each style is appropriate and where it may not be appropriate. As you read this, you will probably recognize that you have a predominant or comfortable style that you may tend to overuse and other styles that are uncomfortable that you may underutilize.

The visionary style leads by inspiration. This style requires a strong belief in one’s vision for the future and in the ability to move others towards the same vision. The visionary style requires the ability to communicate well and to empathize, or the ability to see things from the other person’s perspective. This style of leadership is most applicable when significant organizational change is required. In order to get people to embrace change, the leader must help them to visualize the change. This style is not appropriate for operational management where quick, daily decisions are required.

The coaching style leads by developing others to their greatest potential. This style requires the ability to help others see their strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to counsel, coach, and encourage continual self improvement. The key to making this style work is having a team of competent and motivated people and the willingness to delegate to them. This style is most appropriate in building long term capabilities of the organization. This style is not appropriate for problem employees or where the general level of competency is low.

The affiliative style leads by creating a harmonious and high morale environment. This style requires the ability to resolve conflict and connect people to each other. This style is appropriate during times of high stress and low morale. The key is getting people to pull together rather than work against each other.

The democratic style leads by creating high levels of teamwork and collaboration. The leader is required to be a good listener and collaborator. The democratic leader achieves commitment by participation. This style is most appropriate in solving specific problems where the ideas and input from a variety of people is important. It also helps to gain greater buy in for significant initiatives. This style would not be as applicable where organizational success is primarily determined by individual performance or where consensus may not lead to the best solution. For example, if Moses used the democratic style while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they would have gone back to bondage in Egypt.

The pacesetting style leads by setting challenging goals. This style is numbers driven and expects people to have initiative and a strong drive to achieve. This style is overused and often is used poorly. It works best in situations, such as sales, where the primary determinant of performance is the competency, effort, and motivation of the individual. This style is inappropriate where results are most influenced by external factors outside the control of the individual.

The commanding style leads by tight control, threats, and fear. It is only appropriate during a crisis or with problem employees. During an emergency, this style soothes fear by giving people the sense that someone is in charge and knows what they are doing by giving clear direction. It is the least effective style in creating a positive organizational climate.

Each of these styles requires different skills and behaviors on the part of leaders. Those who can masterfully change as circumstances and situations dictate will emerge as outstanding leaders.
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