Approaches to Leadership

I recently went to a meetup as part of the Wellington Leadership group on the topic of ‘Learning to Lead’. During this meetup we talked about the following leadership styles, listed in order of effectiveness in bringing about positive change:

  • Visionary
  • Coaching
  • Affiliative
  • Democratic
  • Pace Setter
  • Commander

This got me thinking about leadership styles and how this can sometimes be reflected in where someone is on their own personal journey. This order of effectiveness could also be seen as something of a maturity model for personal growth and leadership. Before I get started into each style, I think it’s important to make clear that each style has attributes and traits that could make it effective in one situation but could equally make it ineffective in a different one. The ability to change the approach to suit the context is also key to this maturity model and that requires an additional understanding of the environment around us.

The Commander

This style of leadership is directive and is very task orientated. You might recognise a commander by their focus on achieving the task or goal at the expense of everything else e.g. people’s feelings, emotions or time. While useful in situations where action and a clear directive is critical to short term success, this approach can also be seen as overbearing and may alienate people due to its absence of empathy.

When people first step into a leadership position, this approach can easily become a default style as it aligns with the cultural norm of what being a manager is, telling people what to do.

As organisations and people mature, we begin to appreciate that there are different ways to get buy in other than having to use the ‘big stick’, authority or title.

The Pace Setter

When someone works hard and produces results, it’s natural for other managers to want to replicate this in other people. One way of doing this is to promote the pace setter so that they can build a team just like them. This style will encourage others to work extra hours, chase aggressive deadlines, work over lunch and commit to overtime. This can be useful when important deadlines have to be reached and momentum needs to be built but can easily lead to burnout and resentment within teams, especially when personal time is expected  to be sacrificed.

The difference between the pace setter and the commander, is that the commander is more likely to tell others what to do whereas the pace setter will lead by example and create an environment where everyone else feels they have to keep up.

Not all roles or responsibilities require this urgency and it often reduces creativity within teams as thinking time is replaced with continuous action.

These two approaches, the commander and the pace setter do come with a word of warning to use with caution. While they can be effective in some situations, they should also be used as more of a seasoning rather than the main course.

The Democratic Leader

This style of leadership is not political as the name may suggest but wants to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. These leaders are usually focused on gaining a consensus and making sure that no one is left out. When situations are tense and communication is key to resolving issues, having a leader who values everyone’s thoughts equally can help to create an environment where everyone feels heard and respected.

Because this style values each person having a fair and equal say, it can also create an environment where there is a lack of action.

This style tends to avoid decision making in isolation or without counsel and as a result of this can slow down the decision making process and create a bottleneck by preventing actions. Having an awareness of the bigger picture and understanding when it is time to ‘think’ and when it is time to ‘do’ can help to keep momentum.

The Affiliative Leader

The affiliative leader likes to build relationships and usually has a wide reaching network. They are usually warm people who have high levels of empathy and are good at resolving conflict between people as they can help to create positive connections. This emphasis on relationship building can also mean that these types of leaders are less likely to address poor performance as they value the relationships highly and may be more cautious about putting that in jeopardy or upsetting someone.

The Democratic Leader and the Affiliative Leader are similar but do have a key difference between their focus. Where the democratic leader focuses on making sure everyone has a voice, the affiliative leader is focused on building the relationships. It is possible to be democratic without being affiliative.

The Coach

One of the two most effective leadership styles, the coach is good at asking questions. By asking questions, the coach allows others to figure things out either on their own or with guidance and creates an environments where mistakes are things to be learnt from.

The coach is also good at looking at an individual as a whole person and is usually more interested in getting to know the person first choosing to see the work/life balance as just ‘life balance’.

Coaching can be difficult to do correctly and requires a healthy amount of empathy, self awareness and a growth mindset. The individual doing the coaching must also be mature in many aspects of their own self. Coaching done wrong can come across as micro managing and people can lose trust and become defensive or cynical.

The Visionary

These are the leaders tha have a vision and know how to share it in a way that encourages others to want to take part. It is considered the most positive of the leadership styles when trying to effect change. Being a visionary requires the skills to see the bigger picture and also communicate how the individual has a vital part to play in achieving the end result. This approach can empower the individual as they can feel a part of something important and also encourages autonomy.

Having a vision is not enough for this leadership style to be effective, there must also be the maturity and ability for that person to be able to hold others accountable in a positive way. To create this, trust and support are key elements for an environment to be created where no-one wants to let another person down.

How can these styles be combined?

One of the scenarios we imagined at this meet up was that of a dysfunctional team. Our facilitator asked how we might approach a team that was experiencing conflict or dysfunction as a leader. The combination we talked through was:

  1. Be Affiliative, build the relationships first, get to know people one on one and listen to what they have to say, hear their perspective
  2. Be Democratic, once you’ve built an affiliation with each team member, create an environment of democracy where everyone’s voice can be heard. It’s important to let everyone get their perspectives on the table without arguing back, contradicting or fighting. The point at this stage is to allow everyone to be heard and feel like they’ve contributed equally.
  3. Be Visionary, now that everyone knows where they currently are, it’s important to create a vision of the future and bring people into the idea of where they could be with some changes. Remember that being visionary also means that you have the ability to hold people accountable for their actions or lack of.
  4. Be a Coach, once the vision has been agreed to and people know where they want to go it’s then time to step back, be a coach, create an environment of experimentation and ask questions so that people feel a sense of control over their direction.

I really enjoyed attending this meet up and it has given me a lot of food for thought into how I can apply different styles at different times as well as being aware of what I’m currently doing and where I have gaps.

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