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We were halfway through the leadership course. Paul was the kind of leader who knows every little thing about his trade. He was close to his colleagues, had a positive attitude and gave the group energy. “I have always been a natural leader,” he said in the first class. And in the group he became the life and soul of the team. Paul didn’t really believe in the importance of formal instruments like competition and performance management and passionately accepted the idea of “the authentic leader”. It fitted his self-image as someone who projects an attitude of “I like taking the lead, I pull people along, I put trust in my people”.

He worked for the Flemish Government and led a team of 12. His service was about to be integrated into a new department within the next year. There was huge uncertainty. The third class was all about self-organizing teams. “I feel like my staff are getting demotivated. And I can’t make many promises or clear anything up myself. What should I do?” His voice was filled with self-doubt. I spontaneously responded that it may be time to let people think for themselves, let them discover their talent, develop future scenarios as a team. 

At the end of the course he told us how much that moment had affected him. “I ended up in a crisis. I always thought I was a good leader. But in that class I discovered that I didn’t take the insecurity of my staff seriously and that continuing to project positivity cost me a lot of energy. And honestly, I still do not know what the alternative is and how I should behave as a leader.”


The leadership forest

The search for the most effective leadership is as old as time and starts with the idea that behavior is developable and that certain acts by leaders have a better effect on their employees than others. So if we know which behavior is most effective, then we just need to teach it to our leaders and their employees will work better for their organizations. Simple. Right?

Science has been looking into that question since the fifties and is yet to come up with the answer. And that search is likely to continue for some time to come, since much of it depends on context and on the outcomes that employees want. Is it about results, motivation, creativity, change, or about all of these at once? Leadership styles are therefore historically and contextually defined.

Situational, authentic, democratic, authoritarian, charismatic … leadership. Can you still see the wood for the trees as a leader? It gets even more complex. Any one of those styles can be practised and measured in many different ways. For ‘empowering’ leadership, for example, there are more than 10 scientific measurements with variations on the same theme. And each of those studies has a somewhat outspoken effect in somewhat specific circumstances.

In short, answering Paul’s question is like opening Pandora’s box. What to do?


First of all, know your preferred style

There is a growing consensus among leaders that there are a limited number of dominant styles. Historical and empirical research by Pearce et al (2003) found four leadership styles. They are defined by typical behavior, focus and therefore the situation in which they are most effective.


1. Directive leadership

The leader with the directive style is mostly focused on keeping their head in the game: people don’t count, the task and the result do. Typical behavior includes goal-setting and monitoring, or the well-known ‘command and control’ approach. The thinking behind this style is that people need guidance and control and this proves most useful in crisis situations, when consensus is impossible and when forming teams. The downside to this style is dependence, obedience, and a lack of employee involvement.


2. Transactional leadership

Transactional leaders are mostly focused on motivating their employees and are usually adherents of the 1980s and 1990s ideas on ‘people management’ in many big organizations, along with HR processes such as performance and talent management. Leaders make sure that the employees are appropriately rewarded based on their performance. The downside is that this style is very conservative and reduces people to ‘employees’.


3. Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders focus on the growth of their employees by intrinsically motivating them, treating them like individuals, being an inspiring role model and developing a vision. Their outlook on the world is positive. People like taking on responsibility when their talent and values are drawn on. This style is used in situations where change is needed and unity has to be created from a long-term vision and mission.


4. Empowering leadership

The most recent style is the ‘empowering’ leader. Here, the focus is on participatory decision-making, encouraging self-leadership and teamwork. These leaders make themselves smaller and let their people grow as much as possible. In the same group, we find ‘servant’ leadership. This style is most effective when organizations want to optimally invest in self organizing teams and self-leadership.


This approach is not based on the idea that one style is perfect. Contingency is important: which leadership style fits which situation or role? Situational leadership revisited. Employing these different styles strategically is an important task for today’s organization. Not looking for leaders with four styles, but for the match between the leader’s preferred style and the role they want to take up. For Paul, discovering that he works in a rather directive and transactional way helped. He could guide and motivate people, but developing a vision and giving people room to grow was not his strength as a leader.


Secondly, know that not all styles are good

The above-mentioned idea of leadership style can seem very relativistic: “it all depends on the situation.” That is partly true. On the other hand, there are also leadership styles which scientists agree have no effect, or even have a negative outcome. The following are the most well-known:


5. Aversive leadership

Aversive leadership starts from an outspoken negative view of the employees. Typical behavior is intimidation and/or punishment. This behavior destroys the employees’ confidence and motivation and will have a very short-lasting effect.


6. Laissez-faire leadership

Laissez-faire leadership means that a leader is especially good at being absent and is not concerned with their staff. This style has also been empirically researched and does not have a positive effect. The danger of laissez-faire is very real in many contexts: big pressure on leaders, unclear competencies, diffused balance of power, and so on can easily create a sense of “everyone does as they please”.


7. Incidental leadership

In the same group, we find leading from exceptions. In this case, the leader will only get involved in incidents, complaints, deviations. This style does not increase performance either.


Organizations need clear standards determining what can and cannot be done in leadership. Be firm with intimidating leadership behavior. Make clear that employees should not be left to fend for themselves. Disapprove of incidental leadership.

Paul didn’t have to worry about that. He was positive, didn’t partake in diminishing leadership behavior and was very involved with his employees. He could proudly say that he was a good leader.


Thirdly, the new silver bullets of leadership

The effect of leadership style effect should not be exaggerated. Leadership can also be found in teams and in every individual. Pearce & Manz (2005) call them the new ‘silver bullets’ of leadership, because they are so important in knowledge work. When working together in teams, communities or networks is important, what is needed are good and strong organizational, decision-making, conflict resolution and learning practices. Organizations can gain collective leadership if they encourage and develop self-leadership in everyone.

Self and shared leadership also need hierarchical leaders. Directive behavior is needed to develop and preserve practices. Empowering leadership is needed to let people grow. Transformational leadership pushes for change and a shared vision and mission. Transactional leaders ensure that transparency and fairness pay off. The big difference is that these leaders act from the mindset that it’s not all about them. They see themselves as part of the bigger picture and acknowledge their limits.

This insight helped Paul immensely. He could remain directive and transactional, saw the limits of his situation and could call on informal leaders in his team to complete him. At the same time his own leadership was healthier because there was less ‘leadership weight’ resting on his shoulders and he had a renewed sense of confidence in himself as a strong leader.


To conclude: stylish leadership

The fundamental change in leadership development is to no longer strive for unity in leadership. It’s not about leadership style, but about stylish leadership. As Nietzsche (1887) said: “To ‘give style’ to one’s character [is] a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.” Let leaders discover and develop their own style and create a shared leadership culture as an organization.

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Topics: Leadership

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