What separates good leaders from great leaders? Self-awareness.
Everyone knows the need for well-honed leadership skills climbs exponentially with the increasing complexity of projects; add a virtual, over-allocated team, global competition and economic pressure to deliver effectively, and leadership dexterity becomes paramount.
A lesser known fact: the effectiveness of a leadership style depends largely – if not entirely – on how well the leader knows himself. Leadership styles must develop organically from an authentic sense of self and a clear understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. In addition, a key feature of an effective leadership style is its malleability – how quickly a leader reads context and knows when to apply and adapt varying degrees of specific styles to the situations she encounters.
How leadership styles affect business results
Before you decide which leadership style to adopt, consider the business case. Knowing your leadership style allows you to:
- Create clarity, direction and purpose for your organization
- Calm tense or urgent situations
- Positively engage diverse teams, cultures, industries and economic environments
- Recognize leadership as much more than ‘problem solving’ – there will be myriad dilemmas and choices to be made, yet understanding how we take advantage of or create opportunities to do things differently distinguishes the great leaders from the good ones
When you embark on your search to understand your personal leadership style, consider the following:
Core leadership styles
Developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the late 1930s, these include:
- Authoritarian or autocratic
- Participative or democratic
- Delegating or free rein
Effective leaders tend to have one dominant style while regularly incorporating elements of the other two.
Leaders tell their team what they want done, how they want it done and when they want it accomplished, all without seeking input.
Usually, when a leader sticks to this style exclusively, things don’t get done. Fallout may include high turnover, limited innovation, toxic work environments and stagnated growth. That said, an authoritarian approach can benefit a highly motivated team with little time to execute and all the information they need to complete the project.
These leaders include one or more members of the team in the decision-making process, while maintaining the final say. Typically held in high esteem, participative leaders enjoy a significant degree of confidence in themselves and their teams. Participative methods work well in cases where the leader and his team hold some of the information required to execute, while key subject matter experts hold the rest.
A delegating leader allows her team members to make the decisions, with the understanding that she will ultimately be responsible for those decisions. Best reserved for teams that can analyze the situation and determine what needs to be done and how to do it, this leadership style must accommodate things not going according to plan.
Leadership continuum: Do you focus on tasks, or people?
The managerial grid model, developed by Robert R. Blake and Jane Mouton in the mid-1960s, has undergone several renovations over the years; however, the grid’s basic premise persists. It measures leadership styles against a predilection for either production or people.
Leaders who favour ‘getting things done’ lean toward production, while those concerned with their team’s wellbeing prefer the people focus – others balance both. Neither is correct. Again, the value of the model is to understand one’s innate leadership qualities, plot them on the grid and then assess any areas needing improvement. The Blake Mouton grid defines five disparate styles:
Country club leadership (high people, low production)
Country club leaders focus exclusively on facilitating positive feelings within their workforce. Herein, the leader assumes happy team members produce great results. Consequently, a relaxed and fun work environment develops, often to the detriment of business goals, revenue and productivity.
Produce or perish leadership (low people, high production)
In this scenario, the leader views her team as a means to an end; production trumps people every time. She motivates her team via punishment and enforces strict rules, policies and procedures. Things get done; however, high turnover often occurs and the firm may have difficulty attracting qualified employees.
Impoverished leadership (low people, low production)
Leaders employing this style typically prove ineffective. Lack of interest in creating efficient internal systems combined with minimal regard for employees creates disharmony, disorganization and dissatisfaction – in short, an all-round disaster. Companies under this leadership model suffer high turnover, broken workflow issues and customer retention challenges.
Middle-of-the-road leadership (medium people, medium production)
Initially, this approach appears an ideal compromise. Upon closer inspection, leaders who employ a middle-of-the-road leadership style often generate tepid results, since a certain percentage of both production and people needs remain unmet.
Team leadership (high people, high production)
In the hierarchy of managerial styles, the team leadership approach represents the pinnacle – it stresses production and people needs equally. Importantly, these leaders fully involve the team in the organization’s purpose and determine production needs collectively. When people needs and production needs coincide, teams invest in the organization’s success. The ensuing culture of trust and respect engenders high satisfaction and motivation, which in turns leads to high production. That said, team leadership styles don’t apply in every business context. A business transformation, for example, requires higher emphasis on people needs.
To mature your leadership style using the managerial grid, follow these guidelines:
- Identify your preferred style
- Think of situations in which you were the leader
- Place yourself in the grid for each of these situations, according to where you believe you fit
- Find areas of improvement to develop your leadership skills
- Consider your current leadership approach
- Look at ways to improve by asking yourself the tough questions. Are you settling for less because it’s easier?
- Identify ways to get skills and be more effective to reach the team leadership position
- Check your performance. Observe when you might be slipping back into old habits
- Put the grid in context
- Use your self-awareness to determine the most effective style – or combination of styles – for the specific type of work
Unique ability approach
Dan Sullivan developed the unique ability model as part of the Strategic Coach® program. Founded on the idea of using feedback from others to ascertain your capabilities, the model breaks them down into the following quadrant:
I really can’t do this. Don’t ask me to. Putting me in charge of this will wreak havoc on the project.
I can do this, but there are other members of the team who do it better.
Not only am I highly skilled at this, but I can also teach others how to do it.
This is my passion and I am the one member of the team who must absolutely own this.
When building self-awareness, the unique ability model assists the leader in consciously and thoughtfully framing choices about what to lead, how to lead, when to lead and most importantly, when to let go. It genuinely facilitates deep reflection on one’s leadership style and its applicability to the specific needs of any given project and contributes significantly to the project’s success.
Five degrees of freedom
To a large extent, the degree of freedom you establish within your team will shape leadership style, as it determines the necessary level of both control and trust.
In the diagram below, the three points above the freedom line indicate ways to lead others to act freely. The first degree is the ultimate level – allowing team members to act on their own and report results. At the other end of the spectrum, the fifth degree says ‘wait until I tell you what to do.’
The Five Degrees of Freedom approach reminds us to stay within the higher levels as leaders and afford freedom wherever possible. In the end, when we all do our jobs and interact well together, everyone wins.
Bottom line, as a leader, it’s impossible to get things done without people – including you! Self-knowledge, self-awareness, the willingness to experiment and the ability to apply different leadership styles to different situations increases the likelihood of your project’s success tenfold.