“What’s your leadership style?” It’s a common enough interview question. But the answer is rarely insightful, or helpful to the interviewer. “I have an open-door policy” or “I’m tough but fair” are frequent responses. Those stock answers may well satisfy an inexperienced interviewer, but they tell us nothing about what your actual leadership style is.
As a recruiter and coach for over 20 years, I have witnessed the promotion and development of many into leadership positions. Few things beat the excitement of landing your first leadership or management role. Your years of hard work, dedication and expertise have paid off and your work (and worth) has finally been recognised.
But, for many, the step-up is challenging. It is rarely plain sailing and, for some, the waters are just too choppy. I’ve seen, at first hand, all the common problems that new and emerging leaders struggle with: making the transition from “expert” to “leader”; not communicating effectively; failing to delegate and not praising staff appropriately are common.
But there’s one thing that stands out among all the difficulties faced by new leaders: the ability to develop a well-rounded leadership style that gets the best out of your new team.
Leadership theory and models
If you’ve studied business, you’ll know about leadership theory and models – from the Blake and Mouton managerial grid to Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model. These models characterise styles based on whether the leader focuses more on the task in hand or the people involved.
Given that one definition of leadership is “getting things done with, and through, people”, both the task and the people are equally important. Different situations call for a different emphasis – sometimes there is a need to be more task oriented and, on other occasions the requirement is for a greater focus on the people.
However, most new leaders (and many experienced ones) are unable to adapt their style, sticking with their default preference for people or task. I liken this to going onto the golf course with only one club – you’ll finish the game but it’s much easier with a variety of appropriate tools in your bag.
We have all worked with directive, controlling managers. They focus on getting the job done, the way they want it done. They tend to leave little or no room for input from their staff. This is often seen in new leaders who are promoted due to their expertise and experience. I’ve had many justify their style by asking, rhetorically, “What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it?”
Equally, we’ve all probably experienced managers who can’t, or won’t, make a decision without involving everyone around them in the thinking process. They may lack confidence or think it’s important to “engage” their team in every issue.
Both styles have their place. Being “directive” – telling people what to do – is important if there’s a crisis, or if the solution is blindingly obvious. As an extreme example, you don’t want everyone’s opinion on what to do if there’s a fire alarm in the building. Gaining “consensus” – involving everyone in the decision – is important when one needs to gain buy in from the team, or if different perspectives on the problem are required.
What’s your leadership style?
My advice to all leaders and managers who want to be more effective is simple. Step back and really consider what your leadership style is, beyond the stock answer to an interview question. Ask yourself how often you use each the following styles in your day to day interactions with your team:
Being Directive – deciding what should be done and telling your staff exactly what to do
Being Consultative – asking for your team’s input before deciding on the way forward yourself
Seeking Consensus – reaching decisions as a group with an equal say
Being Delegative – giving the responsibility for the decision to your team
You are likely to lean towards one style more than others. If you recognise this then ask yourself why, and consider if it’s appropriate for the environment you work in. The leadership styles we favour are often formed by our experiences of other leaders. Many organisations have cultures which strongly influence the predominant leadership style. Most, though, benefit from a well-rounded, flexible approach. If you’re in one of those organisations, ask yourself:
- Are you getting the most out of your team?
- Are you sharing the decision-making responsibility sensibly?
- Are you giving your team members the opportunity to develop and learn by involving them in the process?
- Are you giving yourself the opportunity to lead and think by delegating (or directing) effectively?
If you’re not sure, then ask your team members. They will know! Many years ago, in my first leadership role, I was told about my highly Directive style in no uncertain terms… I quickly made it my priority to do things differently.
Good leaders recognise the value of flexing their style and quickly benefit from enhanced staff engagement and development. Through making the best use of their resources, they also find more time for themselves to focus on what is really important.
Furthermore, there is a growing recognition of the value of leadership wisdom – knowing which style to adopt in different circumstances. Employers and recruiters now use a variety of Situational Judgement Tests to assess this ability. It is a rapidly expanding area of psychometric testing which influences hiring decisions for key leadership roles.
Good leaders use a range of styles for different situations, retaining and releasing control of the decision making based on the individual task in hand. But our years of work and research into this subject show that there are relatively few who do this well.
Whether you’re a new, or experienced, leader, don’t be a “one club golfer”. Learn how to flex your leadership style to suit different situations. It will make your job easier, it will develop your staff and it is likely to enhance your career prospects.
You can test your leadership style using the Leadership Judgement Indicator – a unique situational judgement exercise designed to assess your preferred styles and help your development in this important area.